2024: The year of the K-9

West Jefferson Police Officer Omar Salem and Diego have been on the job as West Jefferson’s K-9 unit since last fall. They are the second K-9 unit to serve the community. The first served from 2013 to 2018.

(Posted Jan. 22, 2024)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

Over the years, K-9 units have come and gone at law enforcement agencies across Madison County. Recent developments could make this year the year all three police departments and the sheriff’s office have K-9 units on staff.

A K-9 team consists of an officer and a service dog, both of whom receive specialized training. The dog’s training can include narcotics detection, tracking for human odor, article searches for evidence, protection work, and suspect apprehension. The dog stays with the officer around the clock, both as a work partner and as part of the officer’s home life.

The county’s law enforcement leaders all agree K-9 units are a valuable asset. The Madison County Sheriff’s Office is restoring its K-9 unit after a hiatus of several years. The West Jefferson Police Department introduced a new unit last year, its first since 2018. The Plain City Police Department hopes to get another dog to succeed the K-9 that passed away last year. And the London Police Department is transitioning from one dog to another to comply with new marijuana use laws passed in November.

Madison County Sheriff’s Office
The last K-9 to serve the Madison County Sheriff’s Office retired several years ago. Since then, the department has relied on other agencies to provide K-9 services such as drug sniffs and missing person tracking.

A couple of years ago, department leaders started talking about reinstating the K-9 unit, primarily to help fight the drugs they see coming into the county and to help with searches at local schools and businesses.

At the time, more and more states were passing laws legalizing medical and recreational use of marijuana. Before moving forward with a new K-9 unit, the department decided to wait to see if similar laws would be passed in Ohio. The reason for waiting: Dogs trained to sniff for illegal drugs cannot indicate which specific drug they detect, just that illegal drugs are present. Dogs trained to sniff for marijuana, among other drugs, cannot be untrained to sniff for the drug and, therefore, cannot perform searches in states where marijuana is legal. The Sheriff’s Office wanted to be sure any investment they made in a dog and training would be relevant for years to come.

This past November, Ohio voters passed Issue 2, legalizing the use of recreational marijuana. Following the vote, the Sheriff’s Office started executing its plan, naming a deputy to serve as the new K-9 handler and purchasing a vehicle. The next steps include outfitting the vehicle, purchasing a dog, and training the deputy.
The new handler is Dep. Mike Stone who has been with the department for 23 years.

“(Stone) has always had a want and an interest in doing this,” said Sheriff John Swaney, adding that several officers expressed interest in the position.

All those interested went through interviews with an outside panel. The selection process also included a physical assessment and a home visit.

The department has purchased a vehicle for $43,000. Swaney estimates the cost to outfit the vehicle with a dog cage and other equipment will be $14,000. The dog will cost between $15,000 and $25,000, depending on its level of training, he added.

As for sourcing a dog, Swaney said, “The Sheriff’s Office partners some with Franklin County for tactical and SRT (special response team) operations. They have a larger K-9 unit. We like some of the abilities they have. So, we will check into their supplier.”

He said the department will vet a couple of suppliers, then choose one. He said the goal is to have the program up and running by mid-summer.

The new dog will be the fifth K-9 the Sheriff’s Office has had in its history.

West Jefferson’s first K-9 unit consisted of Arc and Officer Brandon Smith, who is now the village’s police chief. They are shown here with 27 kilos of cocaine Arc detected in a gas tank on a vehicle sniff performed for the Ohio State Highway Patrol in 2018.

West Jefferson Police Department
As of last fall, a new K-9 unit is on patrol in West Jefferson. In the few months they’ve been a team, Officer Omar Salem and K-9 Diego, a 2-year-old Dutch shepherd, have already made a positive impact. One example: Diego performed a vehicle sniff that surfaced drugs; the resulting drug seizure is now pending in court.

Newly named West Jefferson Police Chief Brandon Smith is excited to see the duo in action. They are the second unit to serve West Jefferson. The first served from 2013 to 2018 with Smith as the handler.

“Part of the reason I brought the K-9 program back is because the first unit we had was such a huge success,” he said.

When Smith and his K-9 partner, Arc, were active, highlights of their service included apprehension of a bank robber and discovery of 27 kilos of cocaine in a vehicle gas tank.

To get the program back up and running, Smith contracted with Mitch Christian of Christian K-9 in West Jefferson. Christian sourced Diego, importing him from Poland at the start of 2023.

“Diego was ready to go as a police dog. He just needed to be imprinted on narcotics once in the United States,” Smith said, noting they omitted marijuana from the training in anticipation of Issue 2 passing.

Once the imprinting was complete, Diego was united with Officer Salem. The pair completed police handler training in September, after which state evaluators tested them and awarded certification.

Salem was one of a half-dozen officers who showed interest in becoming a handler. He got the job, Smith said, because he possesses many of the necessary traits, including a clean history, good arrest records, a family who understands the accompanying lifestyle change, and experience with a variety of scenarios that require a high degree of responsibility.

“When you become a handler, you are doubling your responsibilities. You’re called out for regular shifts, but other agencies also are calling you. You are on-call 24/7. So, you want to ensure that the handler you choose can handle all of this,” Smith said.

The cost to acquire Diego and provide initial and ongoing training was $18,000. The department is utilizing its existing K-9 vehicle, still on fleet and fully equipped.

K-9 Andor served the Plain City Police Department for five years before passing away last summer as the result of lymphoma. The department hopes to get a new K-9 this year.

Plain City Police Department
Plain City’s most recent K-9, Andor, passed away in June 2023 after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma. The 7-year-old German shepherd had been with the department since March 2018.

“Our goal is to get another K-9, hopefully sometime this year,” said Plain City Police Chief Dale McKee.

The department has set aside cash seized in drug-related cases to purchase a new K-9 and pay for training. They plan to use their existing K-9 vehicle and equipment.

“We still want to utilize (the truck) and equipment because the money for it was donated,” McKee said.

Plain City suspended its K-9 program in 2012 due to budget cuts. Six years later, the community raised a total of $85,000 to allow the department to reinstitute the program.

McKee has a strong desire to keep the program going.

“My feeling is that a K-9 unit is one of the biggest assets you can have for a department, whether for public relations, tracking, apprehension, or drug detection,” he said.

His hope is to find another dog like Andor who he said was a perfect fit, not only as a working dog but as a positive connection to the community.

“He was great with children and the public. Kids could climb on him and pull on him, and he never showed any signs of aggression, ever. I hope the next dog is just like him,” McKee said.

Finding the right handler also is important, he added. A couple of officers have expressed interest.

London Police Officer Mike Combs and Ygor have served the city of London for the past six years as the police department’s first K-9 unit. Ygor will retire this year due to a change in state law. Combs will be the handler for Ygor’s replacement.

London Police Department
In November, London city council voted to earmark $85,000 to purchase a new dog and cruiser for its K-9 program.

The department’s current K-9, Ygor, is being retired because he is trained to detect marijuana which is no longer permitted following the passage of Issue 2. Ygor is the department’s first-ever K-9. He has been with the department since 2017 and is 7 years old. Police dogs typically work for seven or eight years, according to London Police Chief Glenn Nicol.

Officer Mike Combs, Ygor’s handler, will be the handler for the next dog. The department is working with Gold Shield Canine Training out of Blacklick, Ohio, the same outfit that sourced and trained Ygor.

“We trust that they will have a good product,” Nicol said. “Ygor has been a great dog. He’s good at tracking, drugs, apprehension, and has such a great demeanor around the office. And he is great with the public.”

Nicol said Gold Shield likely will deliver the new dog sometime this spring after which the dog and Combs will complete five weeks of handler training.

Of the funds council set aside, $17,500 will go toward purchasing and training the dog. The rest will go toward buying a new vehicle. The current K-9 vehicle has over 100,000 miles on it and is one of the oldest cruisers in the fleet. Nicol said the department would like a vehicle outfitted with a split cage, allowing room for the dog and for another person besides the officer. The wait time for such a setup can be long, though, he said. If one isn’t readily available, the department will go with a small SUV again.

As for Ygor, the department will continue to use him in a limited capacity until the new dog comes on board. Combs, who has been with the department for 16 years, has the option to buy him out to become his family’s pet.

In extolling Ygor’s virtues, Combs said the Belgian Malinois is well liked in the community and has racked up some solid statistics. Just last year, Ygor and Combs were called out on dozens of narcotic searches, assisted with three apprehensions of violent subjects, conducted two building searches, assisted other agencies inside and outside the city and county, and performed four demonstrations for school functions.

“I think the dogs are a vital tool in law enforcement,” Combs said. “There are areas where we’ve been able to obtain enough probable cause for search warrants. Numerous times, a dog is utilized to gain compliance on suspects who might be otherwise resistant or hiding. There are times when we use a dog instead of hand-to-hand force to engage someone. They’re just a great tool.”

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