Photo by The Spider Hill on Flickr. (Not the author’s house.)

In the spring of 2009, the police attempted to break into my house.

The previous resident of our home was arrested a few days earlier in a traffic stop. Her son successfully fled on foot, dropping a gun as he did so. When police asked her where her son lived, she gave the police our address telling them that he lived there with some of his friends.

As he was wanted on a warrant, and known to traffic in guns, the police were eager to search the home figuring that they would find a stash of illegal guns. Since the suspect had lived there up until 2007, they found several references to our home’s address that seemed to confirm her story.

On the evening of May 14, 2009, about 40 Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers showed up at our house and attempted to execute the warrant they secured for the suspect. When no one answered the door, they proceeded to attempt to break down our back gate. After 45 minutes with a battering ram, drill and a crow bar they succeeded in damaging our security gate we installed before moving in, the door frame and parts of the house’s exterior near the door, but they had not gotten in. They were in the process of getting a ladder so that they could break in through the second story window when my wife arrived.

After determining what was going on and showing the officers her ID, my wife was able to convince them to stop trying to break in. She coaxed them into showing her the search warrant and then allowed them inside. They briefly searched the house and admitted that they had made a mistake. They gave her some forms about how to be reimbursed for the damage, apologized and left.

We weren’t angry. Police work is often time-sensitive and the impression they gave was that they were eager to catch some bad guys — which we support. They made an effort to avoid mistakes, but still mistakes will be made when one is in a hurry. No one was hurt and we expected to made whole.

Unfortunately, we had to pay to repair the damage first, and then ask to be reimbursed. To replace the door and the frame cost several thousand dollars, which we were able to pull out of our savings. But fixing damage to the exterior of the house would require removing much of the wall and the windows, and would have set us back over $10,000. We couldn’t afford to float DC a loan to fix this and we were concerned that we might get stuck with the bill. Since the damage was only cosmetic we decided not to repair the exterior.

We had the repairs done over the course of the summer and fall, submitted the paperwork in November of 2009 and received a reply in January of 2010. We were advised that while the District intends to compensate residents for damages for which it is liable, it was not liable for damages in our case because the search warrant was valid.

However, DC MPD General Order 309 states, “In those instances where a forcible entry occurs as a result of misinformation, misinterpretation of information, or erroneous judgment, the Department will provide an explanation to the owner/occupant, and will repair the damage as soon as possible.”

We started a dialogue with the city’s Office of Risk Management (ORM) which makes the decision in these types of claims. They informed us that they have to follow the decision of the MPD, which said the claim should not be paid. When we contacted our District MPD, they said it was for the ORM to decide — though the police have their own ORM which the city’s ORM accused of stonewalling.

Feeling like both sides were trying to blame the other, we asked if we could have a meeting with both agencies together. MPD declined, saying that, “The matter has been properly addressed by both agencies, DC and MPD’s ORM… Although the MPD ORM does not decide whether to award or deny a claim, we do support and stand by the DC ORM’s ruling that your claim is denied.” I called MPD’s ORM and was told, somewhat rudely, that my claim was denied, and “how hard is that to understand.” After that my calls and emails to the MPD’s ORM went unreturned.

Left with seemingly no other recourse, we filed suit against the District.

Property damage complaints related to police investigations are not new: the Police Complaints Board investigated them in 2005, finding that officers occasionally failed to inform people why their houses were being searched and left without arranging for repairs or informing the owners how to have repairs reimbursed. We learned from that report that MPD is supposed to immediately contact the on-call Facilities Management staff member to make necessary repairs when it appears MPD is responsible for repairs. This was not done for us.

We were not eager to go to court and were concerned that the District would win for reasons of sovereign immunity. So I made a last ditch effort and wrote letters to then-Mayor Fenty and Chief Cathy Lanier [My wife joked that I might as well write Barack Obama too, as much as that it likely to work]. I cited the general order that calls for the city to repair damage in cases like this.

I was impressed when Chief Lanier wrote me the next morning to inform me that she would get involved. By the following day, a representative of the MPD’s ORM told me that, “in light of the recent development,” my claim would be paid. By recent development I assumed he meant getting chewed out by the Chief of Police.

In the end we were reimbursed in full, about 5 months after making our claim, but there are three key ways this frustrating and time-consuming debacle could have been avoided.

DC needs better electronic record-keeping. Before the warrant execution, we sent back dozens of pieces of official mail, including checks intended for the previous residents, to the District. And there were at least four places in DC records where the sale, ownership and new residents of the home were documented. If the MPD is going to rely on these records as the basis for a search warrant, they should work to link them so that when changes to the recorder of deeds records are made, for example, a flag goes up in other records.

Ideally the system could be searchable so that they could search for an address and get a time-ordered listing set of records pertaining to that address. Had that existed, they could see that the person they were looking for had lived there, but that all the newest records related to a new set of owners. The information they needed was in their possession, but their system couldn’t easily access it.

When property is damaged in this way, MPD needs to follow policy and offer to make repairs immediately. I’m not sure we would have taken them up on it as we preferred to use our own contractor, but not everyone is able to front the money. I have visions of people living with a broken down door for months, and that’s not acceptable.

MPD should be proactive and let residents know if they’re going to reimburse them for damage, and for which damage, within a very short time after an incident (i.e. a week) instead of only after the repairs are made. We were left to guess as to which damage would be covered and which would not, and to worry that none of it would be covered. A slow, mysterious bureaucratic process is not a productive way to handle these kinds of situations.