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Are police dogs an effective crime-fighting tool, or have they had their day?

K-9 units are expensive, carry liabilities and might be outdone by drones
A former Durango K-9 unit springs into action. The Durango Police Department no longer has a K-9 unit, for a multitude of reasons. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The Durango Police Department won’t be taking a bite out of crime anytime soon. Not a literal bite anyway. With a cultural shift and legislative changes around illicit drug enforcement – canines have been given their walking papers and will no longer be a part of the force.

In Durango that means Betty – the department’s sole four-legged employee who left a couple of years ago – won’t be reinstated or replaced in the foreseeable future.

“A lot of the narcotics have been dropped down to misdemeanors, so we really need to look at how tax dollars are spent and relate it back to our strategic plan for public safety,” said Deputy Chief of Police Brice Current. “That’s basically what it is.”

Expense, liability, training, upkeep, available personal and equipment are all issues in considering whether to add a K-9 unit to the force, Current said. Having an officer with a K-9 in a patrol vehicle is one less officer who is able to transport prisoners, or people who need to be taken to the hospital or to detox.

Insufficient public funding is the main reason canine programs fail, according to the United States Police Canine Association. A dog trained for both patrol and sniffing out narcotics can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000. And that’s just for the dog. Then there’s the expense of converting patrol vehicles to accommodate K-9 units. Add to that the cost of food, daily care, vet care, general expenses and ongoing training, it can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $30,000, according to figures released by K-9 officers.

The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has a K-9 program that began in 1989. It has had eight different dog-handler teams in the 33 years since. It currently employs Astra, Phoenix and Ozzy. All three dogs are trained to chase fleeing suspects, locate evidence, and search for narcotics and missing people. The funding component has not been an issue.

“Funding for the Sheriff’s Office is sponsored by the National Police Dog Foundation,” said Sgt. Chris Burke of the Sheriff’s Office. “The sponsorship is used to raise funds and promote education and awareness for the purchase, training and development of K-9 programs.”

If the Durango Police Department sought donations to add back a K-9 unit, Current has no doubt the funds would come.

“The people in this community would help us with anything,” Current said. “But again, it’s all the other things that go into it, and we are trying to grow as an agency and be very intentional with our budget and our annual strategic plan.”

As far as liability issues for the city is concerned – i.e., what happens if a dog on patrol bites a random resident – that has never been an issue for the Sheriff’s Office. Its dogs have visited children in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools across the county and in Durango.

“And the liability issue wouldn’t be a deal breaker for us, it would just be something we would need to safeguard against,” Current said.

The main issue is getting the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to community policing and safety, he said.

“We just have to get as much public safety as we can with the resources we have.”

And while Burke highlights the increased safety that dogs bring to his deputies, Current points to how drones have helped in situations where dogs were once employed.

“We moved more toward drones because we used to use dogs for searching,” Current said. “And it’s kind of dangerous at night, searching with a dog. And drones have the capability of seeing at night. And we are able to see from above. We’ve already had two or three instances where we’ve been able to back off and wait until somebody came back to their car, or out of the bushes, or whatever, and nobody was hurt. Nobody got bit.”

For those concerned about Betty the laid-off Durango police dog, rest easy. She landed on her feet working drug interdiction along the highways outside Gallup, New Mexico.


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