Police K-9 Bites Not Common In Area
Wilkes-Barre has joined the ranks of cities across the country where police dogs have bitten innocent bystanders, but officials from other area police departments with K-9 units say they haven’t experienced such issues with their dogs.
After Wilkes-Barre police K-9 Chase bit an officer earlier this week — the second time the dog bit an officer in nine months — The Citizens’ Voice polled municipalities in Luzerne County with K-9 units about problems with police dogs being overly aggressive or biting officers or bystanders.
Of the six officials who responded, none cited any such problems with their dogs.
Officials with multiple law enforcement and corrections agencies for which Wilkes-Barre’s K-9 trainer, Paul Price, has provided training reported no problems with their K-9s either.
However, the officer in charge of the K-9 unit in Lancaster City, where officials stopped using Price’s services, would not say whether the department experienced any problems with their K-9s, nor would he say when or why the city switched to a different trainer.
And a woman whose organization funded the purchase of police dogs in a Lancaster County borough for 16 years said the borough never experienced a problem with a K-9 and handler until switching to Price’s services.
Lancaster County Sheriff Chris Leppler confirmed that the department uses Price’s training services, but he said it “wouldn’t be appropriate” for him to comment “on Wilkes-Barre’s situation or on anything in the sheriff’s department in connection with the K-9s.”
Price didn’t want to comment on Tuesday’s biting incident in Wilkes-Barre because it’s still under investigation and he didn’t have all the facts yet, but he said he would do so after city officials provide him with information. He also said he would need time to think about whether or not any of the dogs he trained (aside from Chase) ever bit a bystander or police officer.
Price did address situations in Lancaster County.
Lancaster City police Sgt. Michael Gerace, who is in charge of the city’s four police dogs and their handlers, said he was “not at liberty to comment” on any issues with his department’s K-9s. He declined to speak about Price, saying he was aware of the biting incident on Tuesday and didn’t want to “get in the middle” of the investigation.
Price said there were no issues with Lancaster’s K-9s when he was training them. Officials decided to switch to an in-house trainer, and sent an officer to a master trainer school, he said, adding that using an in-house trainer is becoming a trend for departments with multiple K-9s.
Connie Beury, president of Columbia K-9 Campaign, said the organization had been raising funds for Columbia borough in Lancaster County and the borough police department had acquired four previous dogs through Castle’s K-9 in Mechanicsburg. But a few years ago, the mayor and police chief decided to switch to Price for the newest dog.
Beury said she heard Price trained dogs for prison work, described prison dogs as “vicious” and “would not have one or let one near a child.” The dogs that Castle’s provided and trained, she said, were “gentle babies.”
Two weeks into training, Beury said, the officer assigned as handler said, “This is not for me,” and the borough gave the dog to the Lancaster County Prison. The K-9 Campaign group was eventually reimbursed for the cost of the dog.
Columbia police Chief Jack Brommer said there was no issue with Price or the quality of the dog.
“The issue was on our end,” he said. “The officer decided it wasn’t something he wanted for him or his family and withdrew from training after a couple weeks. We did not have a replacement officer.”
LNP/LancasterOnline had reported at the time that Mayor Leo Lutz believed switching to Price’s North East Police K-9 Academy in Wilkes-Barre Twp. was practical because he trained dogs for other agencies in Lancaster County and the contract would be less expensive than Castle’s. Brommer had told the newspaper that he observed a training session with Price and was impressed.
Price said the officer discontinued training after “he realized the commitment to be a police dog handler was more than he was willing to do.” He said it’s not the first time that scenario has played out.
Asa Anderson, a retired K-9 trainer with the New Jersey State Police and owner of Anderson K9 Training in Yardley, described being a police dog handler as “a 24/7 job. They don’t get days off. That’s the sacrifice of being a handler for a patrol dog.”
Lancaster County Prison Warden Cheryl Steberger said Price provides the training for the five dogs that now work at the facility and “we’ve never had a bite on an inmate.” She said the facility has had a K-9 program since 1976 and has used Price’s services for “many years.”
As for the bite incident in Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday, she said, “Stuff like that is bound to happen. It’s an unfortunate situation, for sure.”
W-B’s not alone
In addition to biting two officers, Chase bit two suspects last July. One of them, Joshua Fought, was bit on Public Square while Chase’s handler, officer Joe Homza, was trying to arrest him. Homza had charged Fought with resisting arrest. A judge dismissed the charge and Fought filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city. The case is progressing in U.S. District Court.
But Wilkes-Barre’s police department is far from the only one that has experienced some high-profile K-9 bite cases.
The Pioneer Press reported in July that officials with St. Paul Police Department in Minnesota initiated “tighter guidelines” on use of a police dog after a bystander was bit on the arm. The man was lying on the sidewalk for his own safety when a police dog came on scene and bit the man after the dog’s leash broke. It was the third high-profile St. Paul K-9 bite case in two years.
MPR News reported that St. Paul’s mayor and police chief said the K-9 unit would undergo an external audit examining its policy, practices and training.
Anderson, the state police trainer, has said it’s standard practice for any New Jersey State Police K-9 to be removed from service after any bite until the team undergoes an evaluation.
Richard Polsky, an expert witness on police dog bites who investigated 30 cases of dog bite attacks by police K-9s on innocent bystanders, wrote in an article on dogexpert.com that little data is known about the phenomenon partly because police are reticent to disclose information.
Wilkes-Barre City Administrator Ted Wampole said police Commander Joe Coffay has been investigating Tuesday’s bite incident, and he, Coffay and Mayor Tony George will meet this week to “review the report and discuss where we go next.”
Wampole said a decision on the need for an evaluation of Chase and Homza’s work together will not be decided until after this week’s review.
“Without details on the dog and the officer, it would be premature to speculate on where we go from here,” Wampole said.
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