Middlebury considers police dog program

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Police Department wants to re-establish its police dog program, an undertaking that would require an approximately $50,000 up-front investment from the community.
It was in 2003 that then-Middlebury officer George Merkel — now the Vergennes Police chief — inherited Blade, an already seasoned police dog, from a Vermont State Police trooper who had been deployed overseas with the National Guard. He soon put Blade to work at Middlebury PD, teaming up with the eager German shepherd to find missing persons and contraband. The dog was also a popular presence in the schools and in neighborhoods, according to Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley.
Blade retired in 2008, and Merkel eventually acquired a new police dog, Akido, whom he brought with him to the Vergennes PD in 2009. At that time, Middlebury PD was thick into its budgeting process and had no one immediately available to take over a K-9 program, Hanley recalled. So Middlebury police and sponsors of the dog program agreed to donate Akido and related equipment — included an older, specially retrofitted cruiser — to the Vergennes PD.
Middlebury has since received periodic help from the city’s police dog, as well as from K-9 teams from throughout the state. Hanley explained that all K-9 teams are included on a public safety list to lend a hand and a paw to departments needing such services in a pinch.
But some Middlebury residents and business owners have in recent years increasingly inquired about re-offering a local K-9 team, Hanley said. The subject was informally discussed at last year’s town meeting, whereupon Middlebury police officials agreed to study what it would take to reinstitute a K-9 program.
“There has always been an interest,” Hanley said. “We have had periodic requests from people outside of the department who have asked, ‘Are you guys going to re-do the dog program?’”
Hanley stressed that a new K-9 program in Middlebury would have to reflect all of the standards and protocols prescribed by the Vermont State Police Academy. Middlebury’s initial program, Hanley said, was done “very informally” and at modest expense thanks to Blade’s previous training, Merkel’s dedication and private donations (as opposed to taxpayer funds).
“It was never a ‘town’ program,” Hanley said. “It was supposed to be a situation where we would run it for three or four years, and then see if the town wanted to absorb the costs.”
But Blade’s retirement and Merkel’s move to Vergennes ended, or at least suspended, the K-9 program in Middlebury. Building such a service from scratch takes significant funds and organization.
“If we were going to continue the program, we would have had to buy a new car,” Hanley said. “Everything was beyond its useful life. At that time, it would have been a big start-up cost.”
Recent talk of resurrecting the program has generated some excitement within the department, according to Hanley, to the extent that some officers have stepped forward to research a K-9 start-up and to potentially serve as dog handlers.
Research thus far has indicated:
• What Hanley believes is a conservative estimate of $50,000 to launch the K-9 program. This would include purchase of a Belgian Malinois, training for the dog and its handler, veterinarian expenses, and equipment that could include a new cruiser or an existing one that would need to be retrofitted with a special seating area for the animal.
• An estimated $6,300 in recurring annual expenses to run the K-9 program, including dog food, vet bills, training and occasional overtime for the handler. An equipment fund would be maintained above and beyond that annual operating budget, Hanley noted.
• Vermont labor law requires the handler to be compensated for off-duty time in caring for the dog. This is normally done through an added overtime cost (30 minutes per day) or by reducing on-duty time by 30 minutes a day (to a 7.5 hour day) while compensating for the full eight hours, according to Hanley.
A police dog’s typical service span is six to eight years, according to Hanley. On retirement, the dog reverts to the owner as a family pet, at which time the owner takes full financial responsibility for the animal. The department must then acquire a new dog and place it under the direction of the current handler, or a select a new one.
Hanley said the dog’s main responsibilities would be tracking suspects and/or missing people, sniffing out evidence in investigations, and accompanying its handler on patrols.
Middlebury officials had considered placing a $50,000 K-9 program article on the March 1 Town Meeting Day warning. But the selectboard and Hanley ultimately decided to delay a financial request pending further community discussion, beginning with the annual town meeting on Feb. 29.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com

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