Baltimore cops gave new meaning to dying like a dog last summer after they received a report of an unattended pooch biting a woman on the hand.
The pooch in question was a 7-year-old Shar Pei named Nala that had gotten away from its owner but had both a collar and an ID tag.
The woman said that Nala had only bitten her after she saw the dog standing in traffic and sought to check the tag with the hope of finding the owner.
The cops nonetheless decided that Nala was a vicious pit bull that was out roaming the streets, foaming at the mouth.
Police Officer Thomas Schmidt ended up employing the noose of an animal control pole. The dog was likely already dead when Police Agent Jeffrey Bolger cut Nala’s carotid artery with a knife.
Bolger would later insist that he did so to save Nala any further suffering as well as to make doubly sure that the dog did not suddenly revive and bite somebody else when the noose was loosened.
The Baltimore state’s attorney at the time, Gregg Bernstein, charged both cops with felony cruelty to an animal.
Bolger sought to have the case against him dropped, partly on the grounds that the state’s chief medical examiner, Dr. David Fowler, had determined that the cut to Nala’s neck was almost certainly post mortem.
But Bernstein was running for reelection against an up-and-comer named Marilyn Mosby. He would hardly have sought to alienate Baltimore dog lovers by abandoning the prosecution of a cop who was widely described as having cut poor Nala’s throat.
A Facebook page called “Justice for Nala” sprang up. Twitter buzzed with #JusticeForNala posts. One pleasant looking young woman wrote:
“I'm about to say something I normally wouldn’t, but... Dear Officer Jeffrey Bolger, I hope someone slits your throat.”
The charges stood.
Bernstein lost to Mosby anyway.
Then came a surprise.
“Ms. Mosby was publicly sworn in on January 8, 2015,” papers later filed by Bolger’s attorneys say. “On her first official day as State’s Attorney, she dropped the charges against Officer Schmidt.”
Schmidt was the one who applied the noose that either strangled Nala or caused the dog to strangle itself while struggling against it. Schmidt was also said to have held Nala down while Bolger applied the knife.
Mosby’s office would say only that the decision was “Due to developments in the ongoing investigation of this case.”
Perhaps Mosby felt that Schmidt was less blameworthy for having employed a department-issued device in accordance with his training.
A cynic might have wondered whether Schmidt’s sudden and surprising good fortune had something to do with him having retained the law firm founded by Bill Murphy, an early and energetic backer of Mosby’s candidacy.
“Did Mosby have such a keen interest in the death of a stray and vicious dog that she unilaterally made it a priority to evaluate the comparative merits of the case against the two charged police officers and decide to dismiss just one of them on her very first day in office?” ask court papers filed late last week by Bolger’s attorneys.
In the court papers, Bolger’s lawyers suggest that just the appearance of impropriety is cause for Mosby to be removed from the case in favor of a special prosecutor.
That call for removal was cited and seconded in a similar motion also filed late last week, this one by lawyers for the six cops who have been charged in the death of Freddie Gray. That death was ruled a homicide by the same medical examiner who concluded the dog was probably dead before its throat was cut, a fact that should not suggest in any way that the loss of a person can be equated with the demise of a dog.
The cops in the Gray case note that Murphy represents the Gray family, which is all but certain to pursue a big-money lawsuit.
The Gray case cops say Mosby has a further conflict of interest because her husband is a city councilman who represents the neighborhood that was the epicenter of the riots.
Yet there is nothing in the Gray case that raises the possibly of prosecutorial bias as distinctly as does the decision in the animal cruelty case to drop the charges against one cop and not the other.
Bolger was scheduled to go on trial on Monday, but it was postponed while Mosby's office prepares a response to the defense motions for a change in venue as well as for a special prosecutor.
Mosby’s office may seek to justify the continued prosecution of Bolger by noting that a witness reported hearing him arrive on the scene saying, “I’m going to [expletive] gut this thing.” Bolger has denied speaking those words.
The account of the woman who was bitten, Sandy Fleischer, makes all the cops look bad. Fleischer reported in an interview with a Baltimore radio station that after being bitten while trying to read the dog’s tag she called both the police and animal control. She simultaneously had followed the dog with the hope of preventing it from being hit by a car and keeping anyone else from being bitten.
“So she wouldn’t hurt herself or anyone else,” Fleischer told the radio station.
After about a half hour, the dog entered a vacant lot. Several patrol officers arrived and attempted to corral the dog using sticks, with little success.
Bolger and Schmidt of the Emergency Service Unit arrived, wearing tactical gear. Schmidt—who eventually escaped being charged—wielded an animal control pole, slipping the noose around the dog’s neck. He tightened it and twisted it repeatedly after the dog was facedown on the ground
“Almost as if to torture the dog,” Fleischer recalled. “The dog was crying in pain.”
She watched an officer place a knee on the dog’s chest.
“It just got out of hand,” she recounted.
She says she heard the cops describe the dog as a vicious stray, but to her the collar and a little name tag in the shape of a bone indicated otherwise.
“You know the difference,” Fleischer noted. “They were pigeonholing her to be an aggressive pit bull out in the street.”
She was not alarmed by what the cops described as foaming at the mouth, suggesting it was a possible sign of rabies.
“Really, she was just a little bit slobbery,” she remembered.
Fleischer did not mention in her account and perhaps was unaware that the police cut off the collar and called the phone number on the tag, only to discover it had been disconnected. She also may not have known that the police repeatedly called animal control, to no avail.
At one point, the cops informed Fleischer that they were going to kill the dog. They recommended she get into an ambulance so she would be spared the sight. She complied, and a paramedic suggested she go to the hospital to begin a series of rabies shots. She informed him that she was four weeks pregnant.
The paramedic must have told the cops, for the police would later say they acted as they had after the dog bit a pregnant woman. The woman herself would suggest that the dog had died needlessly.
“It makes me nervous,” Fleisher told the radio station. “These are the people protecting our city.”
Other people would no doubt say the police only acted in the interest of public safety. Supporters of the police might also point out that gun violence in particular has spiked in Baltimore after the uproar over Gray’s death made cops less assertive on the street.
But there remains a question that applies equally whether you feel the police behaved criminally or appropriately with the dog:
Why were charges dropped against one cop and not the other?
The answer may have some bearing on whether the far more serious case involving the death of Freddie Gray unravels and maybe along with it the city of Baltimore.