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Running with the Big Dogs

The Decatur (Ill.) Police Department has learned that with the right ingredients even a small agency can run a good K-9 unit. Over continual rounds of coffee, Skoal, and Mountain Dew, the handlers share some insights about their jobs.

May 01, 2005  |  by Marcus Wynne

Starting Over

Learning from its mistakes, the department set out to devote enough resources and attention to developing a full-fledged K-9 unit.

"There are four principal steps you have to take to get a good dog program off the ground," Barthelemy can now say from experience.

"First, you have to do your research," he says. "You need to know all the ins and outs of what it takes to make a good dog program. And cost is one of the biggest concerns. You've got to spend money to get a quality program."

Decatur PD has found a variety of ways to pay for its K-9 unit. "Drug seizure money can help and there are other resources you can tap if you know your budget," Barthelemy says. "You reach out to all levels of the department for input as well as other agencies."

Having the resources to start and maintain a unit won't help if the agency and the community it serves aren't supportive, however.

"You have to sell your concept to the community and to the municipality leadership," Barthelemy says. "You have to openly discuss your intentions and the projected capability of the unit. You need the support of the community and the city leadership to make it happen."

Barthelemy says the key to maintaining community support for a K-9 program is keeping the public informed of the continued benefit to citizens.

"You have to manage public perception with a public relations campaign program to sustain support for your program," he says. "Our unit is very visible, involved in over a hundred public education demonstrations a year, conducting searches for missing seniors and children, and so on. Our community has a lot of confidence in our program and supports us because we let them know what we're doing, right up front."

Even after following the first three steps, "You have to educate," says Barthelemy. "You have to educate city administrators. You have to educate the rest of the police department how to utilize the K-9 capability. You need to educate and work with prosecutors so they understand what the dogs can and can't do."

Don't think you're done once you've completed all of these tasks, the chief warns. "All of these things are on-going processes."

Handler Requirements

While Chief Barthelemy sets the direction and steers the department, Dep. Chief Todd Walker runs the agency's patrol division and administers the K-9 program. And while every aspect of the unit is important, the officers working with the dogs every day are integral to the entire system.

"The handler is really key," says Walker. "You have to have very good, very special people in that position. Not just anybody can do it."

Because of the many demands placed on a K-9 handler and the importance of the job to the entire agency, each prospective member of the unit must meet some high expectations just to be considered.

"When we interview for a handler position, we want someone who's been doing an excellent job in patrol for three to five years, with an excellent use-of-force record. I want a handler who'll give me 150 percent every day; who has a positive attitude; has physical stamina; has demonstrated responsibility and excellence in his previous assignments; has the ability to manage his family commitments (and the stability to do so) around the time demands of taking care of a dog and being on call. Those are rigorous criteria."

To determine that each candidate can meet these criteria, every one undergoes a lengthy review process.

"We have them do a written application, which we review for basic qualifications. Then we do an interview, and then we send them out to work with the handlers. We compile our impressions and make a decision. Then they're out of service for training-several months worth-to get them ready for our outside certifications from organizations such as the North American Police Working Dog Association."

But the extra work doesn't end once an officer becomes a handler. In fact, that's just when it begins. "Once they're back in service," Walker says, "the K-9 handlers don't respond to the regular calls for service the other officers do. They're specialized support for the entire shift."

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