Police Nonprofit Keeps K-9s Covered
SFGATE San Francisco Chronicle
The grass was still wet with morning dew when the SWAT team silently descended on the East Oakland home of a high-risk suspect known to be armed and violent. The plan was to distract the suspect by sending in Kosar, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois K-9 officer. Most likely, the suspect would attempt to shoot the dog and the subsequent gunfire would help identify his location.
Kosar's handler, Officer Marcell Patterson knew the situation was dangerous and was grateful that his canine partner had some form of protection: he was wearing his new bullet-proof vest purchased by The Police and Working K-9 Foundation.
Saving K-9 lives is the mission of the all-volunteer, Peninsula-based organization dedicated to keeping police dogs safe while they protect their communities.
Police dogs are not mere companion animals to a police department. Under California Penal Code 600, K-9s used by officers are recognized as an extension of that police officer and receive the same protection. A suspect who attacks, injures or kills a police dog can receive punishments similar to targeting a police officer.
Through Cover Your K-9 fundraisers sponsored by Pet Food Express, The Police and Working K-9 Foundation provides essential safety equipment for law enforcement K-9's throughout Northern California. These include bulletproof vests, custom K-9 trauma kits, patrol car heat alarms and emergency medical training for handlers.
It was a beautiful spring day when Ski, a 4-year-old sable German Shepherd K-9 Officer with the Santa Clara County Police Department, was being fitted with his first vest. As camera shutters clicked, the K-9's handler, Sgt. Alan Slaugh, watched Ski romp on the lawn in his new vest. However, the lighthearted scenario changed in an instant when a dispatch call-out for a knife-wielding suspect on a bus crackled over the radio. Immediately, Slaugh took off with his canine partner in the back of the patrol car and still wearing the vest.
The suspect was apprehended without incident, but Ski was lucky. In the past 10 years more than 30 K-9s nationwide have died from gunfire or stabbing by a suspect, and only one was confirmed to have been wearing a ballistic vest such as Ski's.
"I would never want to see Ski get seriously injured or killed," said Slaugh. "That said, I would rather use him to clear, locate and apprehend a violent suspect than to put one of my human partners into the same, potentially life-threatening situation. I am comforted knowing that Ski has the same ballistic protection that I do going into dangerous situations."
Officer Michael Page with the Petaluma Police Department also praises the nonprofit's support. Last April, his K-9 partner, an 8-year-old Belgian Malinois named Rico, suffered a broken neck, broken back and a ruptured lung after a training accident in which he jumped from a 20-foot ledge while searching for a "bad guy." Proceeds from Cover Your K-9 helped pay for the surgery Rico needed in order to survive and walk again.
Page, like many of his law enforcement colleagues, feels that the bond between a police dog and its handler "is eternal."
Patterson agrees and shares an incident when Kosar was injured. Fortunately, the Oakland officer had recently completed Cover Your K-9's emergency medicine course and knew what to do.
"He stepped on something and had a significant laceration on his leg," Patterson recalled. "From my training I knew how to stop the bleeding, wrap it up pretty good and make him comfortable until I could take him to the vet the next day. Without that training I would have had no choice but to go to the emergency room, where the costs would have been astronomical."
Patterson stressed the importance of this financial savings because of his department's fragile K-9 budget. "It could be the difference between adding another dog," he said of their K-9 department, which currently has eight working dogs. "We also have enough vests and trauma kits for every dog, thanks to Cover Your K-9."
Such contributions are significant and appreciated because police dogs don't come cheap. Averaging $10,000 per dog, departments must factor another $5,000 for patrol - search and apprehension - training, and cross-training for narcotics is yet another $5,000, coupled with maintenance training at $130-$150 per dog, per month. It was those struggles that inspired Louise Tully, a volunteer for the California "Faithful Partner" Law Enforcement K-9 Memorial at UC Davis. She partnered with Sacramento County Sheriff's Department Deputy Steve LeCouve, a long time K-9 handler who shared her concern about K-9 safety.
"We connected with Mike Murray, the Community Affairs Director at Pet Food Express," Tully said. "They were enthusiastic about supporting the safety of police dogs and had already held a local fundraiser in Redwood City. And so, in June 2009, we held our first joint Cover Your K-9 fundraiser."
The event was held at all 35 Pet Express locations in the Greater Bay Area. On the first weekend, proceeds from the sale of pet wash tokens raised more than $75,000 for ballistic vests, which typically average almost $1,300.
Encouraged and motivated with the fundraiser results, Tully, a technology business consultant by day, and LeCouve decided to start a nonprofit focused on providing safety equipment and training for law enforcement K-9 teams. And thus in 2010, The Police and Working K-9 Foundation was born.
The foundation also helped compile The Cover Your K-9 Trauma Kit with the assistance of a veterinary specialist. One of the most innovative results of the foundation's quest to keep police dogs safe is the K-9 Heat Alarm Program, which provides heat alarms for patrol cars. These systems monitor interior temperatures for heat and cold. At preset levels, an alarm goes off, the back windows automatically roll down, and interior fans turn on. The handler can also release door locks through a remote on their belt.
When K-9s Retire
Police officers and their K-9 partners share a powerful bond in which their lives are entwined 24/7. They work and train together, and in volatile situations their lives are dependent upon one another. Unlike human partnerships that conclude at the end of their shift, police dogs usually go home with their handler as a part of the family where they live, sleep, and eat together.
Therefore, it's no surprise that when a K-9 is ready to retire, they are almost always adopted by their handler. At that stage, the dog's care becomes the responsibility of the handler, but the foundation also provides a special fund that supports retired K-9's. Their Retired K-9 Emergency Fund helps with up to $1,000 toward medical bills.
Redwood City Police Officer Dan Schillaci is grateful for the assistance. He hopes to work Clif, his German Shepard K-9 partner of eight years, when the dog retires in another year or so. "That money can go a long way," Schillaci said. "The dogs are more susceptible to getting sick or injured because they're older. The foundation is always there for handlers and our dogs."
"These dogs have served and protected our communities for many years," She said. "We feel that they deserve this assistance during their time of need." She added that for Cover Your K-9 supporters, the best reward is a simple thank you from a human K-9 officer.
"They can go to work confident that they have the right equipment to provide protection for their K-9's," she said. That's what makes all of this work worthwhile."
Police and Working K-9 Foundation
To learn more about the Police and Working K-9 Foundation and upcoming "Cover Your K-9" fundraisers, visit http://www.coveryourk9.org.
By Eileen Mitchell
E-mail InthePeninsula@sfchronicle.com. This story appeared in the Sunday Peninsula Section.