A year and a half ago, the Warwick Police Department (WPD) reinstated the Police K-9 Unit, which has proven to be a large success, especially in term of narcotics investigations.
The WPD has two canines on their patrol team, 4-year-old Viking and 3-and-a-half-year-old Fox. Both German Shepherds were imported from Slovakia and purchased from Connecticut Canine Services. Both are nationally certified by the North American Police Work Dog Association for narcotics detection and patrol work. Patrol work includes building and area searches, tracking, article recovery, and criminal apprehension.
Both Fox and Viking have been with the department for two years. After six months of training along with their partners, Patrolmen Aaron Steere and Paul Wells, the dogs were put on patrol.
Their presence on the force has proven to be successful.
According to Lt. Michael Gilbert of the Community Services Platoon, where the K-9 Unit is housed, in 2013 the K-9 unit was involved in 33 building searches and 28 tracks, and seized $122,000 in cash. In more than 150 narcotics investigations in 2013, they recovered almost 1,000 grams of pot, 60 kilos of cocaine and 36 grams of meth.
Just recently, the dogs were involved in cases that resulted in the apprehension of 30 pounds of marijuana and 24 kilos of cocaine. There was also a recent case resulting in police finding 40 grams of meth.
“Meth hasn’t really made its face in Rhode Island, so that was a good seizure for us,” said Steere.
On the patrol work side, both dogs have also been successful at finding home invasion and burglary suspects in surrounding cities.
According to Gilbert, the work done by the K-9 Unit has more than paid for the program.
“It’s a win-win for the department. These dogs have already paid for themselves,” said Gilbert.
To build a K-9 unit from the ground up, Steere and Wells estimate a cost of $20,000 easily, but if you were to purchase a fully-trained dog, which Viking and Fox were not, the dog alone would be between $15,000 and $20,000.
Other costs include training and special equipment, including temperature-controlled kennels and special door releases for patrol cars. WPD was lucky enough to have equipment from the previous unit and had more equipment donated by the Cranston Police Department.
“We were lucky,” said Steere.
To purchase Viking and Fox was roughly $15,500. A federal grant covered the cost of Viking, while funds from Narcotics’ asset forfeiture was used for Fox. When cash is seized during a narcotics bust, the department can go through a forfeiture procedure to keep that money and put it toward tools or equipment needed by the division.
“There was some creativeness going into funding,” said Gilbert.
The K-9 Unit is on duty roughly 16 hours a day (at least one dog), and is available for callbacks if needed. The WPD K-9 Unit has assisted with cases throughout the state, from Westerly to Woonsocket. WPD is one of only about nine departments to have a K-9 division, and most divisions only have one or two dogs.
Warwick Police had a canine program previously, but it was cancelled about three years ago after the last trained patrolman retired. Leadership often asks officers about programs or changes that could be implemented to improve the department, and a K-9 division was often brought up. After a well-researched presentation by Steere and Wells, it was decided the program could come back under Gilbert’s command.
It was decided the dogs would be under Community Services so they can also be used for community outreach, such as large community events and elementary school presentations.
“We can be a bit more flexible with how we use them,” said Gilbert.
Gilbert said there have been so many positives to adding the program, he can’t think of any negatives.
Visiting the elementary schools with Fox has been a highlight for Wells.
“We love it. That’s the fun part. They care what we are doing,” said Wells.
Steere, who is partnered with Viking, and Wells, partnered with Fox, underwent six months to train the dogs through the Rhode Island Department of Corrections at the ACI at no cost; Steere credits Corrections with being very supportive of getting the Unit back off the ground, providing almost $3,000 worth of training at no cost to the city.
Rhode Island Police Work Dog Association provides the training, and the department is also a member of the Connecticut Police Work Dog Association to take advantage of free training for a small membership fee.
“They had very, very limited training [when we got them],” said Steere, explaining an important part of the dogs’ training is to work with their human partner. That way, the dogs are trained to react to their partner’s voices only. The dogs also only react to commands spoken in German, something the officers needed to learn for training.
“It was difficult,” said Wells. “You need to know your dog.”
But the training hasn’t ended. Steere, Wells and the dogs attend monthly training, also provided at no cost by Corrections, and the officers often request to attend additional training seminars and workshops.
“These guys probably account for a third of my training requests,” said Gilbert.
Training can take place anywhere from the woods to a warehouse to the Warwick Mall.
“To get them used to everything, you need to go everywhere. We train everywhere that will let us in,” said Wells, adding that training is fun for the dogs.
Viking and Fox are trained for a variety of jobs, differentiating what they are supposed to be doing based on the equipment their partners pull out of the trunk.
“Each job we do has different equipment,” said Steere, adding that Viking will watch him to see which harness or collar is taken out. “They associate the equipment with the job.”
Viking and Fox are technically owned by the city, but Steere and Wells care for them 24-7. The officers are responsible for getting them to vet appointments, grooming appointments and keeping them in the best shape possible to complete their jobs. “It’s a lot more work than people think,” said Steere about being the caregiver for a patrol dog.
While out in the community at events or visiting schools, the dogs are always a big hit, but they are also a big hit within the department itself.
“We’re known as the guys who drive around the dogs,” joked Steere.
Steere and Wells admit the dogs have become part of their families, often spending more time with the dog than their family. But they do have to keep in perspective the fact that the dog is often in danger. The dog is usually sent into a building after a potentially dangerous suspect before their human partner. “And they do it for a toy at the end of the day,” said Wells.
When asked about a success rate for the program, Gilbert said even just one seizure of narcotics or one successful track would make the department consider the program valuable. The amount of success the unit has found is above and beyond. Of course, there will be instances where the dogs may conduct a narcotics search and not find anything, but that can be considered a success because there was nothing to find.
The dogs are also used in random drug checks at the high school.
“It’s not going to stop the kids, but it’s going to get the drugs of the schools,” said Wells.
There is also the hope that as word spreads that WPD has narcotics dogs, people might be more hesitant to bring drugs into the city.