Police Chief Ken Burton described the pit bull's actions toward SWAT officers as "becoming aggressive." This story previously misreported the pit bull's actions.
There was a misdemeanor amount of marijuana found in Whitworth's possession. This story previously misreported the amount of marijuana found in the home.
COLUMBIA — When Columbia Police SWAT officers kicked in Jonathan Whitworth's door, they didn't find what they were looking for but drew a worldwide audience.
Acting on an 8-day-old warrant on Feb. 11, at least eight officers raided Whitworth's home at 1501 Kinloch Court in southwest Columbia on the suspicion that he was dealing a significant amount of marijuana. But police only found a misdemeanor amount of marijuana. The tip on Whitworth came from an informant who the police chief said apparently wasn't consulted before the raid was carried out.
Another problem: During the raid, officers fatally shot Whitworth's pit bull and wounded a Welsh corgi before arresting Whitworth, whose wife and 7-year-old were also home.
Now, as the department nears the end of its internal investigation of the matter, it is facing widening ripples of consequences of a story that has gone viral. A video of the raid had received almost 295,000 views on YouTube as of 8 p.m. Thursday as Whitworth's attorney said his client was contemplating legal action against the department.
"We're reviewing everything right now, and we're keeping every possibility open," Jeff Hilbrenner said. He said Whitworth had not yet filed a formal complaint with the Police Department, and Whitworth's family had been put in an awkward position.
"They know that it’s come to the attention of people all over America," Hilbrenner said. "They’ve been contacted by people they don’t know offering support from all over the country. They don’t want that to be how they’re known. They would prefer to go on living their life as a young couple with a young son."
The attention has been much grimmer for the Police Department. On Thursday afternoon, Chief Ken Burton held a news conference with Mayor Bob McDavid at Columbia City Hall to combat what he repeatedly called the Internet's mixing of "fact with fiction."
"We're getting death threats from literally all over the world," Burton said, declining to release the names of the officers involved.
Burton sought to put an end to rumors that the pit bull was in a cage when the officers shot it. He also said the corgi had been shot in the paw by accident because it was next to the pit bull when the larger dog became aggressive toward the officers coming in the front door. The pit bull ran away and again threatened officers, who shot it, Burton said.
In the video, "you hear that dog (the corgi) screaming, and that isn't pleasant to listen to," Burton said.
As for Whitworth — who pleaded guilty on April 20 to a misdemeanor charge of unlawful use of drug paraphernalia and was fined $300 — Burton said a federal drug conviction and a history of combative arrests prompted the use of heavy police force. Burton regretted the department waited so long to execute the warrant.
"I don’t think we should have run it eight days later," Burton said. "We should have run it that day. We simply didn’t do it. So we own that, and we’re very sorry it turned out the way it did. None of those officers wanted to hurt that dog — or any dog, as a matter of fact — but it was an unfortunate situation.”
As McDavid stood next to him, Burton said he had changed department policy to conduct raids immediately after a search warrant is obtained. Burton said the department moved slowly in Whitworth's case because the SWAT team is made up of part-time members who hold other jobs within the department.
But he said the SWAT team had no policy on how to deal with dogs.
When asked whether police would have conducted the raid if they knew Whitworth's son was present, Burton was equivocal. "I would have looked at the situation and the circumstances that day," he said.
Burton said he expected an internal review of the matter to be finished as soon as Monday. There were notes of ambivalence in a chief who largely stood by his officers.
"Frankly, we wouldn’t be standing here if an officer had been bit by a pit bull instead of the reverse happening," Burton said.
He added, “We probably could have been involved in a shooting in there with a person and not been given this much attention, but because it was a dog ...”
Lt. Scott Young, who is in charge of the department's SWAT team, said he couldn't comment specifically on the incident because of the ongoing investigation. As for the department's policy on handling dogs, he said. "If they're aggressive and violent towards our officers, we'll shoot 'em," though he said it was "rare."
What about using a Taser?
"It’s just not as effective on dogs as it is on humans," Scott said. "An aggressive dog is a very tough animal. ... The dog certainly suffers no aftereffects (from the electric shock). As soon as the five seconds is up, they’re right back at it."
The video, depicting a paramilitary-style police raid on a suspected marijuana dealer, highlighted a separate issue. In 2004, the city voted to pass an ordinance that stated: "The limited resources of law enforcement should be directed primarily toward crimes of violence or property loss. The enforcement of laws against marijuana shall be among the lower priorities of law enforcement."
But Scott said the ordinance was intended for misdemeanor levels of possession. "We do not do search warrants based on information that there’s a small amount of marijuana there," he said.
Heavily armed raids are conducted on drug dealers because of a "high frequency of violent offenders and high-frequency of weapons involved," Scott said. Still, most of those go off well.
"We’ve had years where we’ve done over 100 (raids) a year, and the vast vast bulk of them are without incident, with no violence, no resistance, no problems," Scott said. "We’re always reviewing our tactics and methods to make sure we’re safer for everybody."
As for the video, during Thursday's news conference, Burton said cameras on SWAT officers — already common for downtown patrol units — were still in the experimental phase. Scott embraced the idea.
"We video all of them that we can," Scott said. "If a person were to be resistant towards us, it would be good to have that on video. Video gets us out of a lot more complaints and accusations than they get us into."