ATLANTIC CITY - Vader is one of only seven Atlantic City police dogs cross-trained in apprehension and narcotics detection. Normally he would be out patrolling the streets with his handler, K-9 Officer Frank Timek. Instead, he was behind bars Tuesday, locked away in Timek's home kennel.
"As of right now, he's no longer a police dog," Timek said. "He's a house pet."
Vader's status changed Monday, along with 18 other Atlantic City canines, after Mayor Lorenzo Langford issued an order to halt the use of patrol dogs. The administration contends that police dogs such as Vader may deserve to be caged based on almost daily complaints to the mayor's office from residents alleging police handlers are directing the dogs to use unnecessary force.
"We cannot continue to act as though we are disregarding the slew of complaints that have come in. Some of these complaints have been crazy," said Langford's spokesman, Kevin Hall.
But experts say police dogs are indispensable, reducing the risk of harm to officers and saving government money because they cost little to maintain.
California resident Terry Fleck, a nationally recognized expert in handling police dogs, said studies have shown that one police dog is equivalent to 10 police officers, based on the dog's enhanced senses. Fleck also said that a police dog generally costs between $1 and $3 per hour, while Atlantic City police officers have a starting salary of about $36,000.
Timek, who earns just under $85,000 annually, said the city paid for him to attend seven months of K-9 training courses.
"These are highly trained animals," Timek said. "This is a dog that can go and apprehend a dangerous criminal and then go into a day-care center and kiss a child. That takes a lot of training and a lot of money and now it's going to waste."
However, Langford's order only prohibits use of dogs in apprehension situations and still allows the canines to be used in the detection of bombs and explosives. Police Chief John J. Mooney reluctantly complied with the order Monday, but extended it to include dogs cross-trained in apprehension and narcotics detection. He insisted that the dogs cannot choose which of their abilities they can use in certain circumstances.
Although the dogs are off the streets, their training must continue, according to state guidelines. Police Capt. James Pasquale, who heads canine training with the city, said the dogs must receive two days of training every other month to keep their certification active. With the dogs' future uncertain, police officials say they will continue that training with the expectation that the dogs eventually will be permitted to patrol again.
The department hasn't faced many incidents requiring police dogs since the administration's order Monday. Sgt. Monica McMenamin counted two incidents in the last two days that would normally require canine support. One involved an open door after hours at Texas Avenue School and the other a potential crowd-control situation with members of the United Auto Workers at Bally's Atlantic City.
More of those situations will come, Fleck said. When they do, he added, they will end badly if Atlantic City keeps their police dogs caged.
"Bad things are going to happen in the future, let's put it that way," he said. "Some humans are going to get hurt. The real reason we have these dogs is to transfer as much risk on to the dogs as possible, minimizing the risk to our officers."
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