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Messenger: St. Louis County settles for $750,000 in case where SWAT team shot family dog

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Angela Zorich

Angela Zorich, center, talks with her attorneys at the federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis after her lawsuit for the violation of her 4th Amendment rights was settled with St. Louis County for $750,000. At left is attorney Jerry Dobson, and at right is attorney Dan Kolde. Post-Dispatch photo by Tony Messenger.

U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Cohen asked the jury of eight women and one man the question that was likely on their minds:

“Was it a complete waste of time?”

For the past week the jury had been listening to arguments in a civil rights case that pitted Angela Zorich of south St. Louis County against the St. Louis County Police Department and four of its officers. In April 2014, the county’s tactical operations unit busted down Zorich’s door at the request of problem properties unit Officer Robert Rinck because their gas had been turned off. In the raid, an officer shot and killed the family’s 4-year-old pit bull, Kiya.

Cohen answered her own question.

“No,” she said, “it wasn’t.”

The full week of trial was necessary, she said, to get the parties to where they ended up Monday morning, when St. Louis County offered to settle the case for $750,000 just before closing arguments were to begin.

National police shooting expert Jim Crosby, who testified for Zorich at the trial, said it is one of the largest settlements or awards in a dog-shooting case in the country.

At the trial, he testified that contrary to the police narrative that the dog had been charging at officers, it was more likely shot in its side or rear, at or near the spot where Kiya sat when officers broke into the house to execute a search warrant so they could examine the condition of the house. Zorich’s attorneys produced a photo — taken by animal control officers — late in the trial that they say had not been provided by the county when all photos of the scene had been requested.

Rinck declined to comment after the settlement was announced in court.

But county attorney Priscilla Gunn said that the case had already had an effect on changing police policies.

“We’re glad it’s behind us,” she said of the lawsuit. “We’ve made changes since this incident.”

That the settlement was made public was unusual in recent cases involving St. Louis County police, where confidentiality clauses are common. The change is a direct result of St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s direction to the county counselor’s office that more transparency is necessary in the operation of county government in order to regain the public’s trust.

Gunn declined to say what specific changes the police department had made, but said: “There is more risk assessment that we do now,” when the tactical unit is involved.

Attorney Jerry Dobson, who brought the lawsuit on behalf of Zorich, along with Nicole Matlock and Dan Kolde, said he hopes the county learns from what happened to Zorich. He believes the county needs to examine a policy that would use fully armored SWAT units to execute search warrants on what amounts to a crime of poverty.

“I think the settlement says they need to take a serious look at this practice, and hopefully change the policies to better protect the rights of its residents,” Dobson said.

In the trial, the Zorich family — particularly her three grown sons — were painted by the county as troublesome and violent, and anti-cop, in an attempt to justify the intensity of the armed raid.

But the evidence fell short.

At one point in the trial, Cohen had to interrupt Gunn repeatedly to remind her that arrests and convictions are completely different things.

“These are arrests,” Cohen said in front of the jury. “They are not convictions. There may not even be charges.”

The money won’t bring Kiya back, Zorich said outside the courtroom, but she’s ready to move on.

“They know what they did wrong,” she said of the county police. “That money sends a message. The trial showed exactly what happened.”

For Cosby, a retired police lieutenant from Jacksonville, Florida, who is considered one of the nation’s top experts on the issue of animal aggression and police shootings, the Zorich settlement is “a very big deal across the country.”

It comes on the heels of a similar case in Colorado that settled for $260,000 two years ago, and a 2012 Maryland case in which a jury awarded more than $600,000 to a family whose dog was shot by police. That award was later cut to $200,000.

“The settlement shows that the value of pets is being recognized,” Crosby says. “They are more than property. They are part of our family and need to be treated as such.”

As a longtime police officer, Crosby says he’s generally inclined to give cops the benefit of the doubt when they are accused of making mistakes, but the prevalence of such dog-shooting cases show that more diligence is needed.

“When police officers are wrong, we have to be held accountable,” Crosby says. “St. Louis County has to recognize they made a mistake, has to address the problem, and has to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

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