2018-02-09 / Front Page

Police department asking for K-9

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — If Kennebunk voters side with selectmen at the annual town meeting referendum in June, they’ll adopt a $2.09 million budget for the police department, enough to add three new officers totaling eight legs — because one of them will have four.

But while the decision to recommend funding for two new human officers was relatively free of rancor, debate over adding the town’s first K-9 dog to the local law enforcement ranks came with a fair share of bark, if no actual bite.

During the morning budget session held Saturday, Feb. 3 — the fourth of six joint sessions between selectmen and members of the town budget committee, as they meet to hammer out Kennebunk’s municipal spending plan for the new fiscal year to start July 1 — chairmen of the two groups grew noticeably frustrated with budget board member John Costin as he repeatedly questioned the need for the dog.

According to the budget request submitted by Police Chief Robert MacKenzie, there will be no up-front cost to acquire the trained canine, or to train one member of his force to work with the animal on a daily basis. That will all be accomplished with grants from the Working Dog Foundation of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he said. Meanwhile all ongoing care, such as food and veterinary bills, will be paid for “during the first couple of years, at least,” with cash seized during various arrests that has been forfeited and then awarded to the department by the courts.

MacKenzie wrote Tuesday morning in response to a Post enquiry, that he current has $31,000 in court-awarded forfeitures, having been awarded about $25,000 of that over the past 2 1/2 years, thanks, in part, to the one officer Kennebunk Police Depatment has permanently assuaged to Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (MDEA).

The sole cost to local taxpayers to create the new program, MacKenzie said, would be $42,000 to purchase a new police cruiser, and $9,000 to outfit it to serve as a shuttle to the K-9. Both costs will come out of this year’s overall $1.09 million capital investment request for the town.

MacKenzie said there is “certainly” an increased cost to the department in liability insurance due to having a K-9 at its incident scenes, but did not cite an actual dollar figure.

MacKenzie said the dog will help the department sniff out illegal drugs, literally, while also aiding in tracking and searches and serving as a sort of goodwill ambassador for the department.

“The dog would be going into the schools, it would probably be going to our rec programs, as part of our community policing program, where kids can learn about what the dog does, what the officer does, how it works,” MacKenzie said. “People love dogs, as you know, in this community. I think it would be quite a hit.”

However, Costin suggested public relations may not be a qood enough reason to create the new service. Meanwhile, in a Jan. 30 email to his peers, Costin submitted articles from the Washington Post, Reason magazine, and the George Mason Law Review on police dogs, all covering a 2015 federal court ruling approving their use as probable cause for searches, despite acknowledging the results of a National Institute of Health study into how often a K-9 dog might signal a false “alert,” based on queues, intended or not, from its handler.

“Current science indicates that drug-sniffing dogs have an accuracy rate equal to or worse than random chance,” Costin wrote in his email, before expounding on that theme at the joint budget meeting.

Canine conflict

At the budget meeting, Costin started out by observing that in meetings with the budget board earlier this year, MacKenzie had said one of the two new officers he had requested would be designated as the K-9 handler. However, after Town Manager Mike Pardue pared that staffing change down to one new officer in the final $8.81 draft municipal budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, MacKenzie said the one remaining officer would be dedicated to speed enforcement on town roads. Meanwhile, although MacKenzie also has asked to boost the town’s animal control officer from 25 hours per week during the summer to a full-time, year-round position, that person would not work at all with the K-9.

“If this budget included no new personnel, I would still be requesting the capital equipment in order to have a K-9 officer. That’s how important I believe it is,” MacKenzie said. “Out of the existing officers I have, I would have a process t find the best candidate [to act as K-9 handler].

However, Costin countered that “not everyone likes dogs.” That, he said, might mitigate its use as a PR tool for the police department. Muslims and African-Americans, he claimed, are particularly fearful of dogs.

“For Muslim’s a dog is a death sentence. If you are touched by a dog, under Muslim belief, you are going straight to hell,” he said.

“A lot of African-American people are terrified of dogs, particularly police dogs. I learned that when I lived in New Orleans,” he added, noting how, being a dog owner at the time, it had taken him time to “learn some sensitivity” on the issue.

“So, when you bring the dog out, you are not necessarily ingratiating people to the police department,” he said.

Costin then moved on to question the use of a K-9 dog to search vehicles during a traffic stop, at which point Dick Morin, chairman of the board of selectmen, stepped in.

“Should we have a policy discussion on a day when policies are in order?” he asked. “This is a budget decision. These are professionals, and these professionals are asking for a funding decision — not a decision about whether you like or don’t like dogs. Frankly, there are a lot of people who don’t like guns, but I haven’t seen them hang up their gun belts to walk the streets, either.”

“They came seeking funds for a tool,” Costin started to say, only to be interrupted by Morin.

“Make your decision,” Morin demanded, declaring Costin’s set up for his questions irrelevant to the task at hand. Then, when Costin argued, essentially, that, you’re not the boss of me, Morin turned to Tom Wellman, who, as chairman of the budget board is.

“Can we move the matter?” he asked.

“If you can keep your comments short, please do,” Wellmen told Costin. “We don’t need to hear about New Orleans. If you have a question to ask the chief, ask the question.”

“You know what, it really bothers me that in this room, just about everyone who sits around table goes on and on and on, but the minute you touch on something that has to do with bigger issues, it gets shut down,” Costin said, noting that Morin himself and found time for an anecdote about once getting beaten up during a roadside stop when he was a cop, and wishing he’d had a K-9 dog with him then.

“I’m discussing the town’s business and whether or not this is an effective tool,” he said.

“I agree completely that you should be able to ask a question, but ask the question,” Wellman said. “We don’t need you to lecture us on what is good and bad about dogs.”

“I will do that,” Costin said, “But while I do that, I’d like everyone to think about what has come out of their mouths this morning and how many of those were questions and how many were stories and opinions.”

Asked to rebut the material he had provided on the effectiveness of K-9 dogs in drug searches, neither MacKenzie not Deputy Chief Michael Nugent could immediately cite competing studies. However, both claimed that many of the “facts” in the three news articles provided were “actually opinions.”

“The state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that dogs can be used as probable cause [for a search],” MacKenzie said.

“Absolutely. The point is that it’s legal, but not necessarily effective,” Costin said.

“You say the statistics prove this, and the statistics prove that. Statistics prove whatever you want them to,” Nugent said. “The authors of those articles really cherry picked some opinions to support their own conclusions. There are some things that are quite factually wrong. Working K-9s are not pets. These are not dogs that are trying to please their handler by reinforcing what their thing the handler wants. When they do testing and certifications, the handler also does not know where the drugs are. They are not on a leash and reading body language, alerting when he things the handler wants him too. These dogs are trained to alert to the odor of drugs.”

Nugent also said that Maine K-9 dogs are not rewarded by their handler for alerting to the possible presence of drugs. The only get a treat when drugs are actually found. And while a alert from a K-9 can signal probable cause to conduct a search, when no illegal drugs are found, an arrest is not warranted and no cash or other items can be seized “based on the alert alone.”

Still, Costin demanded actual statistical data to refute the material he had presented.

“If you don’t have more data, I don’t think we can just say, ‘No, these dogs are really good, so let’s ignore the data,’” he said.

Costin also questions how much time an officer might be able to dedicate to normal duties, if assigned a dog. Meanwhile, both he and his fellow budget board member Deborah Beal question MacKenzie’s estimate of the ongoing costs to keep a K-9 dog.

At first, MacKenzie had said it should cost no more than “a few hundred [dollars]” to feed a K-9 dog over the course of a year. When challenged, he said that plus any vet bills should be, “probably no more than $4,000 for the year.”

In the end, however, those at the table elected to cut Costin short and move on.

“It’s clear that right now everybody doesn’t want to have this policy discussion, that maybe the budget process is not the right place to have policy discussions,” selectman Blake Baldwin said. “My sense is the board is ready to entertain a motion.”

In the end, Costin ended up voting for the proposed police department budget, because no costs for the K-9 program were included in MacKenzie’s operating budget. Instead, Costin vowed to re-address the issue during debate on next year’s capital investment program. That meeting took place Tuesday evening, after this week’s Post went to press.

Meanwhile, although MacKenzie’s budget request allocated no dollars for the K-9 program, Selectman Ed Karytko predicted it would not be subject to the frequent criticism he and Morin have leveled at the Waterhouse Center — that as nice as it is, the town got stuck with a maintenance bill that was initially sold as already covered by other means.

“Knowing this community, I can almost guarantee you there will be more donations for that dog than almost any other operation,” he said.

New officers

In the end, the budget board voted 5-1 in favor of Pardue’s proposed $2.01 million budget for the police department, with only Beal opposed and Thomas Calhoon absent.

“Not that I don’t support you or what you do, but there are pieces I think could be reduced,” she said.

Although the proposed police budget represented a 5 percent increase over current year spending, Karytko moved to add $72,349 to the bottom line. That, he said, would be enough to cover MacKenzie’s original call for two new police officers, a request pared in half by Pardue’s draft.

“We have to keep in mind that a lot of people move into this community is because it’s a safe community,” Karytko said, complimenting MacKenzie and Pardue, both, on their expertise in law enforcement.

“I have extreme confidence in the fact that whatever they’re bringing to this board is what they need — what they’ve been lacking for a number of years — and I don’t think it’s bloated,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a thrill for them. I think it’s something they really, truly feel they need.”

“You know I’ve been very conservative over the years,” MacKenzie said. “I do try to pinch the pennies as much as I possible can. I would not be here asking for more if I did not truly feel we needed these additional officers in order to complete the mission.”

MacKenzie said that of the 20 officers he has on staff now, one is dedicated to work done in York County for the MDEA, leaving just 19 to patrol Kennebunk streets. Meanwhile, when Pardue prepared a study of the department as an independent consultant back in 2006, he had recommended a staff of 22. But based on a national standard of two police officers for every 1,000 people in a patrol area, Kennebunk really should have 24 officers today, Morin said.

“For 12 years [since the 2006 report] we’ve been whistling past the graveyard, which means that not just the residents of this town have been at risk during that time, but the officers have been at risk, because they don’t have the backup,” Baldwin said.

MacKenzie said that, but for 2007 and 2008 when he had 21, his department has been stuck at 20 officers since 2002. However, from 2000 to 2014, the number of homes in Kennebunk has grown 50.7 percent, from 3,985 to 6,004. And based on traffic studies done since 2000, car counts have grown anyway from just under 1,000 additional vehicles per day on Webber HIll Road, to more than 1,600 new cars on Mill Street.

Speeding, MacKenzie says, is “the number one” complaint he fields from residents.

“I hear it all the time. I truly don’t believe we are able to hit the mark with the staff that we have,” he said.

Beal and others did question why, whether with one or two new officers, MacKenzie did not reduce his annual $135,000 allotment for over time, especially given that the town’s animal control officer (ACO), who is being booted from 25 hours per week to 40, is a sworn officer who can assist with regular police calls.

MacKenzie said the ACO also logs time as the town’s court officer. However, she is limited by law to the number of hours she can work as a regular police officer when on staff as the ACO. And, as the ACO, she gets enough calls to keep her busy, even without added patrols on the beach to regulate dog access. In 2017 alone, MacKenzie said, 1,126 calls for service were made to the ACO.

MacKenzie also said he has reduced his overtime budget in recent years from $170,000, but he chose to retain the status quo at $135,000 in order to assign his new officers to new tasks, rather than backfilling special duties and filling in for sick time. Asked by Beal if hiring a few summer reserve officers might not be a more cost effective solution, MacKenzie said that prospect was not viable.

“It’s very hard for us to hire [seasonal] reserve officers these days,” he said, citing the increased training and certification standards for sworn police officers. “That’s why we’ve gone to more community service officers that are unsworn. We really don’t hire reserve officers anymore. We rely on our part-time officers who work year-round to fill in the gaps.

MacKenzie did acknowledge that his officers are responding to fewer calls overall these days, although he did not cite a number. The reason for the drop is not due to decreased demand, he said, but to the fact that police no longer respond to most medical calls, or perform requested building checks.

“They just don’t have the time to do it,” he said.

Following Karytko’s amendment, selectmen voted 5-1 in favor of increasing the total proposed police department budget to $2,090,207 — a hike of 8.8 percent from current year spending of $1,921,100. Only Selectman Dan Boothby voted against the new amount, while Shiloh Schulte was absent from the meeting.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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