Officials in the city of Hartford have reversed their position and now say they won’t pay damages that might be awarded against two city police officers in an upcoming trial over an illegal police search that ended with one of the officers killing a family’s dog.
The move means that the officers, Johnmichael O’Hare and Anthony Pia, may be personally liable to pay any jury awards, and the family may have trouble collecting damages if O’Hare and Pia can’t afford them.
“They (the city) spend all this money and time defending them and they say you’re on your own now,” said Sgt. Richard Holton, president of the Hartford Police Union. “You hate to see your members go through something like this and be hung out to dry.”
Jury selection in the 8-year-old case is set to begin Tuesday in federal court in Hartford, and the trial is scheduled to start Sept. 19.
O’Hare and Pia, who are now both sergeants, went to Glen Harris’ home in December 2006 on what turned out to be a false report that two guns were in an abandoned car on the property. The family’s Saint Bernard, Seven, which was playing in the backyard with Harris’ 12-year-old daughter, ran at the sergeants after they walked onto the property, and O’Hare fatally shot the dog. No guns were found on the property.
Harris sued the city and the officers on allegations of illegal search and seizure, violation of constitutional rights and emotional distress, but a jury cleared the city and the officers on all counts.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, however, reversed the jury’s verdict in October 2014, saying the officers should not have entered the property without a warrant and ordered a trial to determine damages. The court said lawyers for the city and officers had “overvalued” Hartford’s high crime rate as an “exigent circumstances” justification to enter the yard.
Lawyers for the city said earlier this year in court documents that state law required the city to indemnify – or pay any judgments issued against – O’Hare and Pia.
But Harris’ lawyer, Jon Schoenhorn, wrote in a court document filed Wednesday that the city now believes it is not obligated to indemnify O’Hare and Pia, and the city’s insurer has informed the city that it won’t cover any damage awards in the case.
Schoenhorn declined to comment.
A lawyer for the city and a spokesman for Mayor Luke Bronin declined to comment.
O’Hare and Pia did not return messages.
Holton said the city’s refusal to indemnify the officers appears to be a new practice. He said it will have a “chilling effect” on police work if the city refuses to pay damages when officers get sued.
Harris testified at the May 2012 trial that his daughter needed hospitalization and antidepressants after the dog was killed and still believes she should have prevented the shooting.
His daughter, identified only as “K.H.” in court papers, said in a statement provided by Schoenhorn in 2014 that Seven’s death was hard on her entire family, especially herself.
“Seven was my brother, my companion, my everything,” she added.
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