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Middlebury seeking a police dog

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury voters at their town meeting next March will be asked to support a patrol dog program for their local police department as a way of helping officers out in the field.
Middlebury’s Public Safety & Health Committee last month unanimously endorsed the department’s proposed canine response unit. Now it will be up to the selectboard to determine whether the initiative, which could cost as much as $50,000 to launch, should be presented to voters at the annual town meeting next March as a separate article, or as part of the 2016-2017 police budget request.
Police Chief Tom Hanley favors a separate article.
“We want to clearly show people what this costs, so they can make a decision on this,” Hanley said. “I don’t want to bury it in the budget request.”
This would be the Middlebury Police Department’s second effort to establish a local K9 program. 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 a National Guard unit. He put Blade, a German shepherd, to work on such cases as finding missing persons and sniffing out contraband. The dog also proved a popular presence in local schools and in neighborhoods.
That initial Middlebury K9 program lasted around three years and was funded through grants and donations, both financial and in-kind. Merkel ultimately took the program with him to Vergennes, where it continues today. The Vergennes dog and state police K9s are occasionally called upon to lend their services in emergencies in other communities.
Hanley believes Middlebury would be well served by re-establishing its K9 program — but in a more measured fashion. Specifically, he believes the town should be in the market for a patrol dog that can assist in finding missing persons, search buildings, and help keep its handler and the public safe. He explained some dogs (and their handlers) are also trained to detect bombs and contraband, and track suspects. Hanley does not believe Middlebury needs such an intensively trained dog.
“We are not planning right now to have a ‘tracking dog,’” Hanley said. “The problem with a tracking dog is that it requires a lot of training in a lot of disciplines.”
He added tracking dogs have to be used a lot to remain effective. And while Middlebury has investigated around 50 missing person reports during the past three years, the vast majority of those cases — such as children or adults with memory loss illnesses wandering off — were quickly solved, according to Hanley.
“We’ve called for a dog a handful of times, and that’s not going to be enough to keep our handler efficient,” he said.
Then there’s the time and cost of training a tracking dog. It can amount to 36 days at the Vermont Police Academy. And that’s a long time to be without a uniformed police officer, Hanley noted.
Hanley said two of his officers have volunteered to serve as the dog’s handler. Both currently have dogs.
A patrol dog would require less training but could still prove invaluable as “an extra set of eyes and ears” for an officer, especially at night, according to Hanley. The animal could also help in responding to alarms and building searches.
“The dog can sense and see things that we can’t,” Hanley said of the animal’s superior sense of sight and smell.
It’s an extra amenity that would come at a price — particularly to get the program up and running, police officials acknowledged.
Some of the estimated $50,000 start-up costs would include $1,000 for the dog; $2,300 for a special housing for the animal inside the cruiser; $1,870 for miscellaneous equipment; $1,910 for training in patrol and tracking techniques; $5,170 in K9 handler overtime; $350 for a dog house; and $235 for dog food. The largest expenses would be a new cruiser and a related equipment fund.
Recurring costs ranging from $6,000 to $7,000 per year would include veterinarian, training, food, boarding and equipment costs.
Periodic capital costs, Hanley noted, would include $1,000 every six to eight years for a new dog; $30,000 for a new cruiser every eight years; and $4,170 for equipment and vehicle insert for the dog.
Hanley wants voters to know exactly what their commitment would be. And he does not think the K9 program could be reliably funded just through donations. But gifts for food and veterinary care would be OK, he said.
“This K9 program should be supported broadly with the tax base,” Hanley said. “If we are going to have a program, it should be funded sustainably. We are either going to commit to the program, or not. We had a three-year experiment with it and we have an opportunity now, with enough interest, to be able to do this again.”
Laura Asermily, chairwoman of the Public Safety & Health Committee, said she believe Middlebury police have made a good case for the dog. Now it will come down to funding details and the voters’ verdict.
“I think it’s wise, from a staffing perspective,” she said of the addition of a patrol dog.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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