ST. PAUL — 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, Dec. 6.
Desiree Collins, 52, suffered multiple bites to her arm and one to her lower leg.
Right after it happened, Collins asked the officers, "What did I do?"
Nothing, said one. "Just at the wrong place at the wrong time, ma'am," said another.
Collins' attorney, Andrew Noel, said his client wants to make sure other innocent people aren't similarly harmed.
"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 while she was in the hospital, said Steve Linders, a St. Paul police spokesman.
In a statement on Thursday, Police Chief Todd Axtell said his "heart breaks" when he sees body camera footage of the incident.
"What happened to Ms. Collins was a terrible accident that should not have occurred," he said in a statement. "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, offer support and compassion and learn from the incident so we can continue to work to prevent it from happening to anyone else."
At about 6:30 a.m., 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.
Among those who responded was Officer Thaddeus Schmidt, the officer being sued.
The police department conducted an internal affairs investigation after the Collins incident, which resulted in a one-day suspension for Schmidt, according to police department records. Schmidt remains a K-9 officer, Linders said.
"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 near where Collins was and occurred about seven 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 stopped the dog only 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 because of her injuries, Noel said.
St. Paul officers initially helped Collins get her dressings changed and assisted her with getting groceries, but "this aid stopped once they found out she was represented by counsel," the lawsuit said.
Suit seeks change
Collins has permanent scars from the dog bites and "emotionally, the incident still affects her a lot," Noel said.
Beyond 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 was hospitalized for two weeks after he was mistaken for a suspect police were seeking and was bitten by a police dog and kicked by an officer last year.
Schmidt became a St. Paul police officer in 1998 and a K-9 officer in 2012. He received 15 commendations during that time and was the subject of 12 complaints, of which six cases resulted in discipline.
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.
In Schmidt's one-day suspension in October in the Collins case, the Axtell wrote to the officer that he had allowed the dog "to go around a blind corner which you had neither visually checked nor announced a canine presence."
"Your actions and failure to adequately control your canine partner will not be tolerated," Axtell wrote to Schmidt. "Failure to follow department policy and training standards provided by the canine unit will result in further discipline, up to and including termination."
Schmidt received two reprimands for preventable squad crashes in 1999, and a reprimand for not waiting with a vehicle that needed to be towed in 2002. He was issued a two-day suspension in 2006 after being in a crash while he was off duty — not in a squad — and pleading guilty to DUI.
Before the Collins case, Schmidt's last discipline was in 2006 — it was a written reprimand after a complaint was lodged that police employees were drinking in a police station, and Schmidt admitted to consuming alcohol at least one time on city property.