A regular Saturday morning turned into a nightmare for a St. Paul woman as she took her garbage out and found herself being attacked by a police dog looking for a male burglary suspect, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Desiree Collins, 52, suffered multiple bites to her arm and a bite to her lower leg.
Right after it happened, Collins asked the officers, “What did I do?,” to which they replied, “Nothing,” according to her attorney, Andrew Noel.
“Part of the reason for the lawsuit is she says, ‘If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,’ ” Noel said. “She wants St. Paul to make the appropriate changes to makes sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Police apologized to Collins when she was in the hospital, said Steve Linders, a St. Paul police spokesman.
“Officers were responding to a report of a burglary in progress,” he said. “They did not know she was in the area and they certainly did not intend for this to happen to her. We are sorry. We have reviewed the incident to see what we can do better next time and make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
About 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 23, Collins was taking out garbage behind her home on Van Buren Avenue, near Dale Street.
Meanwhile, police had responded to Minnehaha Avenue and Grotto Street, about three blocks away, on a burglary in process where two males were reported to have kicked in a door and entered a home.
Officer Thaddeus Schmidt was among those who responded, and he is the officer being sued.
“The bottom line is this was a situation that could have been avoided if the dog was kept on a shorter leash and proper warnings were given,” Noel said.
Schmidt’s announcement about the presence of the dog was not close to where Collins was and occurred about 7 minutes before the encounter, according to Noel. Schmidt also had the dog on a 20-foot leash.
The dog bit Collins’ lower left leg and clamped onto her right arm. Officers tried to pull Collins and her arm away from the dog, “but per (K-9) Gabe’s training, their actions only caused Gabe to exert more bite pressure and pull her arm harder in his direction on the bite,” according to the lawsuit.
The attack knocked Collins out of her shoes and the dog dragged her to the ground; it lasted about 30 seconds as she screamed in pain, the lawsuit said. Officers issued 10 “release” commands to the dog and Schmidt tried to use the dog’s E-Collar, an electronic shock device, but they could only stop the dog when Schmidt was able to physically remove him from Collins, according to the lawsuit.
Collins’ wounds on her right arm required dressings, but they were difficult for her to change herself. When she was an infant, she was injured in a fire and her left hand was amputated due to burn injuries, Noel said.
St. Paul officers were initially helping Collins get her dressings changed and assisting her with getting groceries, but “this aid stopped once they found out she was represented by counsel,” the lawsuit said.
Collins has permanent scars from the dog bites and “emotionally, the incident still affects her a lot,” Noel said.
The lawsuit says Schmidt’s dog bit another innocent person in August 2016, and “he received supervisory counseling on ‘leash handling and K-9 control at that time,’ ” according to the lawsuit.
The police department conducted an internal affairs investigation after the Collins incident, which resulted in officer discipline, according to Linders, who didn’t have details Wednesday night. Schmidt remains a K-9 officer, Linders said.
In addition to seeking financial damages, the lawsuit seeks an order mandating changes to St. Paul police policy and training “in the use of effective warnings” and “proper leash techniques” to control K-9s.
Linders said “it’s important to note” that St. Paul officers have responded to about 200,000 calls for service this year and “K-9s have only been involved” in biting 22 suspects to apprehend them.
“This was an extremely unfortunate incident and we feel bad,” Linders said.
In addition to Noel, Collins is represented by Robert Bennett and Kathryn Bennett. They were also the attorneys of Frank Baker, who was awarded a $2 million settlement in April, the largest in St. Paul’s history. The 53-year-old man who was hospitalized for two weeks after he was bit by a police dog and kicked by an officer last year.