Dog-gone it: After Chico’s retirement, city cuts K-9 spot

When Officer Linda Lines decided it was time to retire her patrol dog, Chico, she knew he would be missed. She didn’t know he wouldn’t be replaced.

Chico, a Belgian Malinois or shepherd dog, ended his patrolling duties about a month ago. He was one of two patrol dogs owned by the Naples Police and Fire Department.

Just before Chico was officially retired, the department learned it would not be getting the funding to buy another dog. City Manager Bill Moss decided not to fund the department’s request because of “serious budget shortfalls.”

“We just received notice that property values have declined 8.3 percent. That means the revenues to fund the budget will be down for the third year,” Moss said.

Every dog and handler team commits to completing five years of service. Lines and Chico served seven. For the entire time of a patrol dog‘s service, food and veterinary bills are paid by the city.

Moss believes the city just cannot afford the added expense or commitment.

“The cost of another police dog is $25,000, plus the care for the animal, plus you have to have trained officers to care for it,” Moss explained. Officer Mike Herman, public information officer for the department, said the figure represented “a maximum amount” for a replacement dog; it was more likely, he said, that the actual cost would have been between $11,000 to $15,000.

“The more trained a dog is ahead of time, the more that it will cost,” Herman said.

Training — and benefits

Once a dog is purchased, it and its handler undergo three months of training before joining a police department. After that, weekly trainings help maintain the dog and handler bond. Both of the department’s dogs are dual-certified in narcotic detection and patrol work.

Lines and Chico had eight-hour training sessions every Wednesday to keep their certifications. Chico was trained to detect marijuana, cocaine, crack, heroine, ecstasy and methamphetamines.

Lines and Chico assisted in traffic stops. When a driver refuses to let an officer search his or her vehicle, a K-9 unit is usually called for backup. Chico performed “air sniffs,” checking the air around the car. If he detected narcotics, he sat and pointed his head in the direction of the smell. That would give officers enough probable cause to search cars without the permission of the driver.

“Usually a person that has drugs is no too happy when they see a police dog on scene,” Lines said.

Chico’s presence or his bark were often enough to bring people in line without using extra force, Lines added. She credits Chico with getting a crowd of about 300 rowdy “kids” under control at Naples Beach.

“He is a great deterrent,” she said.

Those additional benefits and duties go unrecorded because nothing happens, Lines said. She felt safer with him around.

“He always had my back,” Lines said.

Herman said they had been looking into grants and donation opportunities to buy a new dog, but the city manager‘s decision brought that research to an end.

“He made the decision that he does not want the dog replaced, and we could not proceed without his approval,” Herman said.

De-dogging a cruiser

Herman said that most of the major costs associated with patrol dogs, such as training and special equipment, were already covered. Now the department has to figure out what to do with it all.

A custom canine squad car purchased last year for Lines and Chico was supposed to go to the next handler and patrol dog, Herman said.

The squad car cost $23,000, according to Randy Bills, shop coordinator for the department. The car was modified inside to function as a K-9 unit vehicle. Bills has to estimate how much money it will cost to convert the vehicle into a regular patrol unit and present the information to Chief Tom Weschler.

That’s “dicey,” he said.

“Dog hair gets everywhere. It smells like wet dog,” he said. “There will be a lot of stuff that has to be done so that a normal police officer would use it.”

The K-9 car has several features that would have to be removed. For example, the vehicle has an animal enclosure instead of a back seat. The department had also installed heat-sensitive temperature controls that roll down windows and turn on a fan if the car gets too hot inside — standard equipment for K-9 units.

“You don’t want to lose the dog,” Bills said.

Once the K-9 equipment is taken out of the police car, a backseat, a cage, retrofitted windows and prisoner bars would need to be installed to allow for prisoner transport. At the moment, Bills is unsure how much the transition would cost.

Although Moss believes the department will be able to make it without a second patrol dog, he knows it’s hard to put a dollar amount on the K-9 unit.

“I have no doubt that these animals are valuable and provide a valuable service, but I can say that about all the services we provide,” Moss said.

He said the department can ask the Collier County Sheriff Department’s K-9 unit for assistance if it needs more support. Herman said the department is prepared to work closely with the county’s K-9 unit, but would probably not be able to return the favor as often as it did before.

“They have needed a dog and didn’t have one available, so we have sent our team. This is a two-way street,” Herman said.

K-9 in retirement

Meanwhile, Chico is at home with Lines, generally easing into his retirement. He still finds time to use his skills, only now it‘s strictly for his own recreation. Instead of apprehending criminals and holding them in place, he spends time picking up stray coconuts in the backyard, crushing them with his powerful jaws, ripping them open and drinking the juice that spills out.

Lines said Chico gets separation anxiety when she heads to work without him. She tries to counter it by spending as much time with him as possible.

“We don’t really have to do anything. He just wants to be by my side,” she said.

Lines, who wanted to be a handler since she became an officer 16 years ago, has chosen to continue to care for Chico. She will be responsible for all of his future meals and veterinary bills. She’s invested in a $500 steel cage that was advertised as “malinois-proof” to keep Chico out of the heat and away from her furniture while she works her shifts without him.

She admits it can get expensive — she has another dog to take care of as well — but she does it because she has formed a bond with Chico that she can’t quantify.

“It’s a labor of love,” Lines said.

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