TACOMA, Wash. - There’s lots to bark about in the Tacoma Police Department’s K-9 unit.
Two new search dogs are expected to join the team this year, and the Tacoma Kennel Club has donated $4,000 to outfit the pups with ballistic vests.
Sgt. Chris Martin, who has been with K-9 for 11 years, said it’s the largest donation he can remember.
“It’s enormous and extremely generous,” Martin said. “Our budget can’t cover everything. This will take care of our next two dogs.”
The department currently has one drug-sniffing dog, Ruby, and one search dog, Zeus.
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Duke, a 5-year-old German Shepherd, retired less than a month ago because he was going blind.
K-9 officers almost immediately got permission to buy a new dog and are inspecting possible canine partners this week. The third dog is expected to come later in the year.
Martin said they’re not looking for a particular breed, just a dog who is driven and dedicated.
Several breeds ranging from Belgian Malinois to mixed breed Labrador retrievers have served as Tacoma officers over the years.
The department typically pays about $10,000 for a police dog, and they’re valued around $50,000 once fully trained.
That’s why the dogs are so good at catching the bad guys.
From January to October 2018, Tacoma’s two K-9s tracked 51 suspects, searched 48 buildings, were involved in the arrests of 118 people and found evidence in six cases. They also completed 531 official training exercises.
Those department statistics do include those from Ruby, the drug-sniffing dog, because she operates out of the Special Investigations Unit.
Since the K-9s are often called in to track violent suspects, they’re exposed to as much danger as their human handlers.
Nineteen police dogs were killed in the line of duty last year, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit organization that tracks law enforcement deaths.
That’s why outfitting the dogs with ballistic vests is important.
Each vest is measured specifically for the dog and costs about $2,500.
The dogs don’t wear the vests every time they respond to a call because they’re at risk of overheating if they wear them longer than 20 minutes, Martin said.
But if the handler is sending a K-9 into a darkened area where they know a suspect is hiding, the dog goes in wearing the vest to better protect them.
Most police dogs killed on the job die by gunfire. Others have been stabbed or thrown from windows and bridges.
In Tacoma, 11-year-old black Labrador mix Barney died after accidentally ingesting methamphetamine while searching a storage unit of suspected drug traffickers in March 2015.
Officials said it’s fairly rare for donations to come into the K-9 unit.
The Tacoma Kennel Club decided to donate money for ballistic vests after their longtime president, William “Bill” Russell, died in April.
Russell was the driving force more than a decade ago when the club first donated vests to the K-9 unit, and current members thought a new donation was a lovely way to honor Russell’s memory.
“We wanted to do something special,” said Pamela Armstrong, the Kennel Club’s corresponding secretary. “We thought it would be nice to do again in Bill’s memory.”
In the 1980s, Tacoma police had as many as five K-9s.
But budget struggles mean cutbacks across all units, and K-9 was no different.
Zeus, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, works four days a week and trains nearly every night with handler Tyler Meeds.
The duo run through an agility course set up at headquarters where Zeus jumps through tire swings, over chain-link fences, runs through drainage pipes and balances across makeshift bridges made of wobbly plywood.
They also practice biting techniques and obedience.
Martin said ballistic vests are one more tool to ensure the safety of both K-9 officers and their handlers.
“Knowing that we have this helps,” he said.