COLUMBIA — A Columbia Police Department SWAT raid that happened in February has prompted a lawsuit against the city of Columbia by the family targeted in the raid.
The lawsuit was filed before noon on Monday in the U.S. Western District Court by attorneys Milt Harper and Jeff Hilbrenner, who represent the family. Three plaintiffs, Jonathan Whitworth, Brittany Whitworth and Brittany Whitworth's 7-year-old son, all of whom were present at the house during the raid, have been listed.
Attorney Milt Harper said the lawsuit charges that the Columbia Police Department violated the Whitworths' constitutional rights, damaged their house with bullet holes, killed one dog and injured another. He said the dog that was injured had to receive emergency treatment costing $2,000.
The lawsuit lists the city of Columbia, 12 police officers who were present at the scene and "other, unknown police officer(s)" as defendants.
The constitutional issues involved are the reason for filing in federal court, Harper said. He said the Whitworths appreciate some of the changes that have occurred in Columbia Police Department procedures since the SWAT raid and hope the lawsuit will lead to more.
Harper said the family has waited this long for the lawsuit because it wanted to give the matter plenty of thought and because the 7-year-old, identified in the lawsuit only as "P.M.," has been in counseling since the incident.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages against the defendants, as well as court costs and attorney fees. It argues the raid caused severe emotional distress to both the child and to Brittany Whitworth, and makes separate claims for them based on unlawful seizure by detention, unreasonable search, false arrest and false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision of SWAT officers. It also alleges assault and battery against Jonathan Whitworth and says the entire family sustained property damage.
The narrative in the lawsuit says the raid unfolded quickly. P.M. was in his bed with his mother, who was reading him to sleep, when a police officer fired the first shot from a 9 mm submachine gun before the SWAT team entered the home.
Once in the house, the defendant officers immediately shot a family pet dog, Nala, without any reasonable cause, according to the lawsuit. As the dog ran away, the officers pursued it from the front door into the kitchen, firing their assault weapons at the dog, until it died. A second dog, a corgi named Bruno, was wounded by the shots.
While inside the house, police fired at least seven high-power projectiles and bullets — including three from MP5 submachine guns and three from a handgun — that caused property damage, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit reads that P.M. and his mother were asked to sit down at gun point in the front entryway of their home, in complete view of the killed dog. Brittany Whitworth and P.M. were also kept in police custody for two hours, the lawsuit read.
The lawsuit further reads that the defendants unreasonably seized P.M., caused injury, damage to his emotional well-being and mental anguish that has required medical treatment. The lawsuit alleges that happened despite an advance "tactical entry plan" that noted a child could be in the home.
The plaintiffs are seeking judgment against each defendant for medical and veterinary bills for the surviving dog, general damages for the value of the dog that was shot, and damages for destruction and injury to the plaintiffs’ home and personal property.
The plaintiffs also seek punitive damages. "Their (the defendant officers) conduct warrants an award of punitive damages to punish them and to deter them and others from acting in a like manner in the future," according to the lawsuit.
Police have said they conducted the February raid based on evidence that Jonathan Whitworth was dealing large amounts of marijuana. Their search on that day, however, found a marijuana pipe but no drugs. A video of the raid found its way to YouTube and received about 1.5 million views.
Police Chief Ken Burton has since backed up the actions of his officers on that night, but tightened up department policies on SWAT raids. The city's Citizen Police Review Board, after a complaint from California activists for marijuana reform, also found no misconduct on the part of the officers.
The California activists have since appealed the board's decision to City Manager Bill Watkins, and a coalition of Columbia residents has filed a separate complaint with the review board.
You can read the full lawsuit at thewatchword.wordpress.com.
Neither Burton nor Deputy Police Chief Tom Dresner could be reached for comment. Jonathan Whitworth, reached by phone, referred all questions to his attorneys.