February 28, 2000
Los Angeles Times
By Sandy Yang
Digit, the star of the Irvine Police Department's K-9 unit, was nipping at the heels of a fleeing suspect two weeks ago when the man trying to evade an arrest warrant turned and began striking the dog's head with an aluminum flashlight.
Dodging the blows the best he could, Digit managed to corner the suspect until officers arrived and arrested him. The Belgian Malinois suffered head injuries--a veterinarian said Digit barely escaped a concussion--but the hardy dog was back on the job that night.
"He's a real trooper," said Sgt. Craig Smith of the Irvine K-9 unit. "He's not the type of dog who likes to stay at home."
The attack on Digit comes amid an unprecedented effort to provide police dogs with protection worthy of the difficult--and dangerous--work they do. The United States Police Canine Assn. said death of police dogs hit a record high of at least eight in 1998, though no statistics on injuries are kept.
Locally, an Orange County pair are leading a campaign to raise money to provide bulletproof vests for all of Orange County's roughly 50 police dogs. At the federal level, a congressman has introduced legislation that would increase penalties for defendants convicted of harming police animals, including dogs and mounted horses.
"If the police officers can have a vest, why not the dogs?" asks Costa Mesa resident Jana Herbert. "They aren't human and when they're being sent in somewhere, they know it's their job, but they don't understand the risks when they go in like a police officer."
Fifteen years ago, police dogs were still a novelty. Today, there are about 10,000 police dogs nationwide: They perform tasks that humans cannot--such as sniffing out drugs--to duties that are too dangerous for their two-legged counterparts--such as charging snout-first after a suspect.
The increase in police dog injuries and deaths underscores that criminals are targeting the animals in an effort to evade arrest, said Kevin Conroy, treasurer of the U.S. Canine Police Assn., who said some drug dealers have even conspired to systematically kill dogs that are effective at sniffing out drugs because "they are hurting their business."
Law enforcement officers who work closely with dogs say losing a police dog to injury or death is like losing a beloved member of the family. There is also a significant financial toll. Police dogs cost about $ 20,000 to train and $ 2,500 a year to feed and maintain, officials said.
Under current federal law, harming a police animal carries a fine, but no prison time.
The Federal Law Enforcement Animal Protection Act would punish culprits with a one-year prison sentence and a $ 1,000 fine. Killing a police animal would carry a 10-year prison sentence. Currently, in California, that crime carries a penalty of just over two years in custody.
The federal proposal is expected to be passed by the U.S. Senate later this year and signed by President Clinton. It could take effect as early as May.
A spokesman for Rep. Jerry Weller, the Illinois Republican who introduced the federal law, said its passage would rightfully recognize the valuable work done by police dogs.
"It's like having a regular human partner," spokesman Ben Fallon said of the dogs. "These animals often perform the most dangerous of tasks. They're first into the room of an armed felon and into other dangerous situations. A lot of people don't realize that."
There is widespread support for the proposal.
"It sounds good to me," said Conroy, of the canine police association. "A lot of dogs get hurt and the extreme is they get killed. Not all of them are killed, but not all are able to come back to work. We had a dog in Florida who lost an eye."
Herbert and fellow Costa Mesa resident Casey Donahue support the federal law, but also want steps taken to protect dogs from injury in the first place.
The pair were inspired after learning about 11-year-old Stephanie Taylor, an Oceanside girl who founded Vest-A-Dog, a nonprofit organization. To date, the organization has provided San Diego County law enforcement officers with 50 vests for its 90 police dogs.
Donahue also drew from personal tragedy. Donahue was 5 years old when his parents gave the family's German shepherd, Thor, to the local police station.
Four years later, Thor was shot and killed while taking part in a bank robbery response. Since October, Donahue and Herbert have raised $ 4,500, collecting private donations and placing donation boxes in pet stores and veterinarian hospitals throughout the area. So far, they have enough to buy seven vests for eight dogs in the Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa police departments.
With these custom-fit vests that are similar to those worn by police, dogs are not only protected from bullets but also from knife attacks--something that has befallen other police animals.
"It can save the dog's life," said Sgt. Jim Perry of the Fountain Valley Police Department, which has received two vests for its two dogs.
But the vests are not without critics.
Weighing about three pounds, the vests can't be worn for long periods of time, Conroy said, otherwise the dogs would overheat, especially with Southern California's often warm weather.
The vests couldn't have prevented the head injuries suffered by Digit, who wasn't wearing one at the time he was attacked.
But the Irvine Police Department, which purchased two canine vests last year, said it's happy to have them.
Police officers are comforted with knowing their four-legged partners are safer.
"They're part of the family," said Sgt. Burt Quick, coordinator of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department canine unit. "You care for them, love them and protect them the best way you can. We look at the vests as a life insurance policy."
Copyright 2000 Times Mirror Company