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Middlebury PD loses dog, will hire officers

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s police dog program faces an uncertain future as newly appointed Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel. a Middlebury police officer, will be bringing his K-9 Akido with him to the Little City.
Merkel established Middlebury police’s K-9 program around five years ago, beginning with Blade, an animal he had inherited from a Vermont State Police trooper who had been deployed overseas with a National Guard unit. Blade has retired, but was replaced last June by another dog, Akido. Merkel owns both dogs.
Middlebury operated its K-9 program without cost to taxpayers. Merkel was able to raise the necessary funds within the community to outfit the dog and a special cruiser.
But with Merkel’s imminent departure, Middlebury police will need to reassess the K-9 program, according to Chief Tom Hanley.
“This will suspend the program indefinitely,” Hanley said. “Right now, we don’t have a budget to move this (K-9 program) along.”
Hanley explained that acquiring and training a new dog and handler would cost thousands of dollars.
“The is certainly not something the board of selectmen can consider at this time,” Hanley said, noting the tough economy and the selectboard’s desire to develop a municipal budget reflecting no property tax increase for the second year in a row.
Plans call for Middlebury police to meet with donors to the K-9 program to determine the disposition of all the equipment.
“There are assets here that have some value,” Hanley said. “We can see if it is possible to convert these (assets) to another program in the department.”
Meanwhile, Merkel is hoping to put Akido to work in the Little City. Akido has proven an adept helper in sniffing out drugs and performing other valuable law enforcement tasks.
“I have every intention of getting the program started (in Vergennes),” Merkel said. “There are some details that need to be worked out.
“The program has distinguished itself and I think has established its worth,” he added.
Merkel said he is grateful to the town of Middlebury, where he has worked as a police officer since 1997. He added that if Akido becomes established as a K-9 in Vergennes, he would make the dog’s services available, when possible, to other communities — including Middlebury. Akido pitched in for other departments on occasion during his time on the Middlebury force.
Middlebury will now turn its attention to filling Merkel’s position, one of four vacancies on the force. The good news is, Hanley has a good pool of applicants and two of those four positions will likely be filled within the next 30 days; the other two will be filled by trainees now studying at the Vermont Police Academy. Those future officers, Christopher Mason and Paul Sokowloski, should be ready to start by late February or early March, according to Hanley.
Merkel’s departure to Vergennes is but one of several recent examples of Middlebury police officers being recruited by other towns. During the past couple of years, Hanley noted, Middlebury has lost two officers to the Vermont Police Academy and four to larger law enforcement agencies in Chittenden County. Officer Nicole Chapleau will soon be leaving to join the Rutland Police Department.
“We are getting a high caliber of police officer here,” Hanley said. “They are very much recruited and in demand by other departments.”
He wished Merkel the best in his new job in Vergennes.
“I think this is a great opportunity for him,” Hanley said. “It is a new challenge. It is something he has really aspired to do and an opportunity for him to spread his wings.”

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