A St. Paul police K-9 attacked an unsuspecting woman, knocked her out of her shoes and dragged her to the ground causing bites that required hospitalization, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court.
St. Paul police officer Thaddeus P. Schmidt lost control of his K-9, Gabe, who repeatedly ignored more than 10 commands from Schmidt and another officer to release the woman, Desiree Collins, according to the suit filed Wednesday.
“What you have here is a completely innocent person taking out their garbage … and a K-9 simply wasn’t controlled,” said one of Collins’ attorneys, Andrew Noel. “It should never have happened.”
Noel and attorney Bob Bennett on Thursday released graphic police body camera footage of the Sept. 23 incident. The footage shows Gabe walking far ahead of Schmidt on a 20-foot lead. The dog disappears behind a dumpster and attacks Collins outside the sight of three officers at the scene. Collins screams in pain and falls to the ground with the dog latched onto her.
“What happened to Ms. Collins was a terrible accident that should not have occurred,” police Chief Todd Axtell said in a written statement issued Thursday. “I am sorry it happened and that she was injured. As a department, we wish we could go back and do things differently. Unfortunately, we can’t.
“What we can do is apologize and take responsibility … and learn from the incident so we can continue to work to prevent it from happening to anyone else.”
Schmidt was suspended for a day for allowing Gabe to walk around a corner and out of his sight, and for not verbally announcing the dog’s presence, according to personnel records. The bite occurred while Schmidt and Gabe were searching for two males suspected in a home burglary in the 700 block of Minnehaha Avenue.
Collins, who was 52 at the time, was attacked about 6:30 a.m. while standing by a dumpster in the 600 block of Van Buren Avenue.
Schmidt is the only defendant named in the suit, which alleges that he violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free of excessive force and unreasonable seizure.
Collins suffered a bite wound to her lower left leg and multiple bites to her right arm during the 30-second attack, according to the suit.
“She’s struggling emotionally with this incident,” said Noel, adding that Collins would not be speaking publicly on the matter.
Collins was treated at Regions Hospital for her injuries, and required a return visit and outpatient care; she could not change her own dressings because her left hand was amputated when she was a child. She also receives ongoing counseling.
According to the suit, which chronicled some events captured on police body cameras: multiple officers responded to the burglary call. Schmidt and Gabe, a 5-year-old German shepherd who joined the department in 2012, began searching for the suspects without any “visual target” or “definitive information” about the suspects’ whereabouts.
Schmidt placed Gabe on a long lead, and gave two verbal warnings to “Announce yourself. Come out now. You will get bit” while located close to his squad.
“No reasonable officer would have believed that a warning given at this location, sheltered by homes and trees, and at this time would have been effective to anyone outside his immediate vicinity, including people more than a block away on the opposite side of the residential area, like Collins,” the suit said.
Schmidt and Gabe traveled through backyards, jumped fences and into alleys without providing additional verbal warning of the K-9’s presence.
Gabe then “pulled” Schmidt for seven minutes as two “cover officers” followed, the suit said.
Gabe’s long lead “greatly reduced” Schmidt’s control of the dog, who walked around a dumpster out of Schmidt’s view and attacked Collins.
One of the cover officers “calmly stated, ‘Oh, there’s a lady,’ ” the suit said.
Gabe bit Collins in the leg and then “viciously” clamped onto her right arm. The two cover officers tried and failed to pry Collins free, according to the suit.
“…per Gabe’s training, their actions only caused Gabe to exert more bite pressure and pull her arm harder in his direction on the bite,” the suit said.
Gabe ignored orders to release Collins, and Schmidt’s attempts to stop the attack using an electronic shock collar also failed before Schmidt was able to remove Gabe.
Collins is suing for unspecified punitive damages and changes in training, policies and procedures in St. Paul’s use of K-9s.
Linders said giving K-9s a long lead protects officers by creating distance between police and armed suspects they may come upon.
St. Paul police K-9s have been involved in 22 apprehensions this year where someone was bitten, he said.
Schmidt, who is paid $85,300, joined the department in 1998. He and Gabe remain on duty in the K-9 unit.
According to the suit, Schmidt was involved in a similar incident in 2016 when Gabe, who was on a long lead, bit an innocent person. The officer received “supervisory counseling” on leash handling.
Linders said Schmidt and Gabe were looking for an armed suspect in 2016 when another man ran in front of the dog and was bitten. The man sustained “minor injuries” that included scrapes, he said.
Schmidt’s personnel file shows that he was suspended for two days in 2006 after he crashed his personal car while off duty. He also had a gun in the car at the time. He was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to drunken driving. He received a written reprimand in 2006 for drinking alcohol at least once on city property while assigned to the FORCE unit.
Noel and Bennett represented Frank Baker in another suit involving a St. Paul K-9 bite in 2016 that resulted in a $2 million settlement. Baker was mistaken for a suspect and was kicked by an officer. Police K-9 Falco also bit and dragged him around on the ground as several officers watched.
Baker spent two weeks in the hospital, underwent skin grafts and suffered broken ribs and collapsed lungs from the incident.
In March 2016, St. Paul reached a $20,000 settlement with a woman who was attacked by police K-9, Rebel, in 2013. Karen Shafer was in her backyard when the dog broke from its pursuit of a car thief, bit her and chased after her as she fled into her home, where the attack continued. The dog bit her several times, resulting in 17 stitches in her right hand, left leg and left arm.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708