The mayor of a small town in the Washington suburbs whose dogs were shot to death during a raid at his home hopes the settlement of his lawsuit against Prince George's County will reverse some of the "deep problems" he sees in the way SWAT teams are deployed in the county.
Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo said that he and the county began the settlement process Monday and it should be finalized by the Feb. 24 deadline. The settlement will include both reforms and a monetary component.
"What matters is that we change the way the system works," Calvo said. "We can do this better."
Authorities raided Calvo's home in July 2008 after drug smugglers sent a package containing 32 pounds of marijuana to the home. Calvo and his family were later cleared of any wrongdoing, and police have said they believe the drug delivery was part of a scheme in which packages were sent to the homes of unsuspecting recipients. The packages would then be picked up by someone else shortly after delivery.
"As the former chief of police, I always expressed regret that the Calvos were victims of criminal enterprise," Prince George's County Sheriff Melvin High said.
The lawsuit claimed that authorities' failure to knock or announce their entry, the killing of the dogs and the "degrading detention" of Calvo and his mother-in-law, were the "direct and proximate result of a rogue, paramilitary culture" within the sheriff's department. Calvo and his family said their constitutional rights were violated and that they suffered physically, psychologically and emotionally.
"It was, by far the most tragic event in our lives," Calvo said Monday.
Since the shooting at Calvo's home, the county police department has put new checks in place, including a more vigorous supervisory review of search warrants and taking more steps to verify who lives in a residence, said county police spokesman Maj. Andy Ellis.
In narcotics cases, the default is to use a tactical team to execute search warrants because the potential for violence is much higher than in other cases and firearms are often recovered, he said.
"It only makes sense for us to send in our most experienced teams," Ellis said. "We would be asking for trouble if we were to just send any police officer in."
In the Calvo case, SWAT officers from the sheriff's office were assisting county narcotics officers, a rare situation, Ellis said.
County police have not used the sheriff's office to serve any search warrants since that incident, he said.
An internal review of the sheriff's office said deputies acted appropriately and that the search warrant was executed lawfully.
"As it relates to operational procedures, we are reviewing all policies and procedures against best practice standards, and SWAT Operations are one of the areas under review," High said.
Under a 2009 law prompted by this incident, agencies must now report on SWAT team deployments and whenever a SWAT team injures or kills a pet.
Fairfax County has reached a $2 million settlement with the family of a 37-year-old optometrist who was accidentally shot and killed by SWAT team officer police. County police said they are now more selective in deploying SWAT teams.
Calvo credits new County Executive Rushern Baker for making the settlement possible. He said it would not have happened under former County Executive Jack Johnson, who is now facing evidence tampering and destroying evidence charges in a federal corruption probe.
"There's real change here," said Timothy Maloney, an attorney for Calvo. "There's brand new leadership. The tone is difference and the change is real. This is why elections matter."
The county expects a settlement to be in place by the Feb. 24 deadline set on Monday, Baker said in a statement.
"I am pleased with today's decision to avoid litigation and that we are close to a final resolution of this unfortunate incident," he said.
Calvo has met the deputies involved that night and has even shaken their hands.
"I don't think they're bad people," he said. "Just poorly trained."
Calvo feels safer knowing that there are people in the county government who want to make these reforms -- what he hopes are the first of many.
"It will help me sleep better," he said.