Despite being surrounded by five counties with K9 units in at least one agency, Story County does not possess one in any of its six law enforcement agencies and based on a combination of experience and funding, opinions around the county appear to be mixed.
And though he does not expect to obtain a K9 unit within the immediate future, Iowa State University Police Chief Michael Newton said he hopes to at least begin the process within the next few years.
“Right now I would really like to see it sometime at the end of 2019 or 2020,” Newton said. “Right now it’s about figuring out where should the funding go, and what’s best for the organization and the university.”
Newton said that his previous department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had several dogs in their K9 unit, and he said that this can serve as not only an important tool for law enforcement in terms of finding narcotics and bombs but also for engaging the community.
“When you have the dog out there, people are willing to come up and have conversations,” Newton said. “That dog kind of opens up that barrier.”
According to Newton, a patrol dog can cost around $10,000, and that price doesn’t even include the proper training, outfitting a vehicle to accommodate the dog, overtime for the officers, feeding the dog, and veterinary care, which can easily drive the total cost to around $40,000.
“None of that’s insurmountable; it’s just that you have to budget for it and know all of those costs upfront before delving into a program like this,” Newton said.
But Newton also said that with the large-scale events put on by the university such as athletic events, speeches, and concerts, having a dog that can help detect items better than most officers comes as a major advantage.
“The dogs just have abilities that the human eyes and nose don’t have,” Newton said.
According to Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald, his office had a K9 unit at one point, and due to several factors, once the dog retired, Fitzgerald said he would not seek a replacement.
And upon looking further into the cost and resources, Fitzgerald said he has no immediate plans to restart the K9 unit.
“As I explored it more, we just decided not to pursue it anymore,” Fitzgerald said. “When you have a canine, there are a lot of other factors that develop; it’s not just a dog living with its handler.”
Much like the Story County Sheriff’s Office, the Ames Police Department has had multiple dogs in the past, but Cmdr. Geoff Huff said that the agency has not opted to bring one back since the last dog retired 15 years ago. And as Newton and Fitzgerald both stated, the cost has been the biggest factor.
“The ongoing costs are what get you; I mean you have to have a vehicle that’s specifically outfitted for a canine, and really no one else is able to use that vehicle, and that’s just not how we operate,” Huff said. “We’ve got limited number of patrol cars and we’d have to have a unit to the fleet, and that’s a huge expense.”
Another point Huff brought up, was the advancements in police technology. According to Huff, some agencies have started using drones to locate suspects or items, which he said can also be expensive up front, but does not have the consistent costs of a dog.
Right now all three of those agencies in Story County contract K9 unit services through either a local organization like Star 1 Search and Rescue, or through surrounding agencies like the Dallas and Boone County Sheriff’s Offices. And both Fitzgerald and Huff said that reaching out to the other agencies when needed has worked out really well for them for the time being.
And if there is anyone who can attest to the benefits of having a K9 unit, it is Boone County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Dallas Wingate, who has been working with patrol dogs for most of his tenure with the department. Wingate’s current dog, Bandit, a 6-year-old German shepherd has been serving the Sheriff’s Office for the past five years and is certified by both the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA) and the Niagara Regional Police Service.
According to Wingate, police canines serve three main advantages to law enforcement: search tools, officer protection, and if used to it full potential, a money saver for the department.
As a search tool, Wingate said that the dog is not only able to locate the suspect, but also link him to the crime scene, as well as locate a missing person. For officer protection, Wingate said that being able to send the dog into a situation can reveal a potentially dangerous situation.
“Now granted, I love my dog, but I’d much rather spend $20,000 on a dog than have to go to (the officer’s) wife and say, ‘Hey we sent him out looking for some guy and the guy shot him,’” Wingate said. “Now let’s say the shot doesn’t kill him, and he’s injured, well all the money we spent to put him through the police academy is now lost.”
Now as a money saver, Wingate said that though the upfront cost is high, using the dog to its full potential prevents using multiple officers, calling in specialized units, or paying overtime.
“I’m saving money in all sort of different locations even though the dog is potentially a $20,000 toll that we’re buying,” Wingate said. “I mean the dog’s not cheap, so don’t get me wrong, but once the dog is in service he works for dog food.”
Bandit is what is known as a “reasonable force” or “bark and hold” dog, meaning that he would only bite a suspect who is aggressive or physical with him. Wingate said a majority of patrol dogs in the U.S. are apprehension dogs, which have more “bite-first” training.
And it was the success of Wingate and Bandit, that made Sheriff Gregg Elsberry give the green light for another patrol dog.
Samson, a 14-month old German shepherd is about a month from becoming fully certified by the USPCA, and according to his handler, Deputy Nate Benjamin, having a mentor like Wingate has been instrumental in his preparedness to take on such a large role with the agency.
”Our program has always had a mentorship in some capacity,” Benjamin said. “In this process, I’ve realized how valuable Dallas has been to me in learning how to handle the dog. Had I not had Dallas, sure I could have read all the books and learned all the information, but my dog wouldn’t have been nearly as on-point as he is now.”
According to Wingate Bandit has successfully helped apprehend over 50 suspects in his five years with the agency. And though Benjamin said that Bandit is in his prime, having Samson on deck to take over ensures that the Sheriff’s Office keeps this unit — that they have had a great amount of success with — going in the future.
“As Bandit retires, mine will be coming into his prime, and then when mine retires, Dallas’ next dog will be coming into its prime, and it’ll be staggered like that,” Benjamin said. “We’ve seen so much value in finding people and finding drugs and just everything that we use him for.”