Why some suburban police departments are changing the roles of police dogs
The Elgin Police Department's "most famous" officer will be sworn in Saturday, but he won't be allowed to drive a squad car or make arrests.
Chance, a 5-month-old golden retriever, is undergoing training to serve as the department's first therapy dog. Unlike typical police dogs, Chance's job is to bring a sense of calm to the people and situations around him on the job and in the office, Elgin Police Cmdr. Eric Echevarria said.
"We see the rise of mental health issues, the rise of emotionally distressed people, and we know all the stress that law enforcement itself has on the agency," Echevarria said. "And I thought what would it look like to have a therapy dog in a police department that is used (for) that purpose?"
The role of police dogs has morphed throughout the country as more states legalize the possession of certain amounts of marijuana. While some agencies are hesitant to invest in a police dog program until laws surrounding drug possession feel more uniform, other agencies, such as Elgin's are introducing dogs that serve more therapeutic purposes. Some, including the Algonquin Police Department, have ended their programs altogether, in part for financial reasons.
"Our last K-9 was forced to retire early, due to medical issues, and at the time, we were in the midst of a recession," Algonquin Police Deputy Chief Ryan Markham said in an email. "Our Chief and Village Manager at the time did not feel as if it was financially prudent to continue the program, so it ended."
The Woodstock Police Department's police dog program also is inactive, Police Chief John Lieb said.
"I have made the decision to hold off acquiring and training a new K-9 Unit until we, as a state, decide where we ultimately want to go with the legalization of different types of drugs," Lieb said in an email. "In other words, I do not want to expend taxpayer funds on an elite program if the effectiveness of the program is soon obsolete."
Bringing a new police dog on board isn't cheap.
The Elgin Police Department bought Chance with money that was donated specifically for that purpose, Echevarria said, but typical police dogs are often a financial commitment for a department.
It can cost "just shy of $13,000" for a new police dog and its training, McHenry County Sheriff's Sgt. Daniel Patenaude said.
Even if officers aren't using police dogs to track marijuana, they are "a tremendous asset to law enforcement," Lake County Sheriff's Office Chief of Staff Anthony Vega said.
"One of the biggest accomplishments is when one of our K-9s tracked a missing individual," Vega said. "It was during the middle of winter. Had our K-9 not located the missing female, they would have probably succumbed to hypothermia."
Without a police dog unit, tracking missing persons or fleeing suspects and locating illegal drugs can be more difficult, Lieb said.
"Our officers continue to actively pursue investigations in which the presence of illegal substances is suspected; they just have to conduct the investigation without a K-9," Lieb said in an email.
A dog's alert to the scent of marijuana may still be enough for police to search a vehicle, depending on the situation, Patenaude said.
"If they're transporting it in a legal manner, then the dog should not alert on that odor," Patenaude said.
In Illinois, it is legal to possess 30 grams of a cannabis flower, 5 grams of cannabis concentrate and 500 milligrams of THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.
According to both the Lake and McHenry County sheriff's offices, however, even legal amounts of marijuana must be transported in "odor-proof, sealed, childproof, tamper-proof" containers. That means if a trained dog can smell it, officers might be within reason to search the vehicle, Patenaude said. Those determinations are made on a case-by-case basis, depending on the circumstances of the police encounter, he said.
But police dogs are trained to more than smell marijuana. Depending on their training and certification, the dogs can be used to sniff out other drugs or explosives, apprehend suspects, track missing people and locate bodies.
The IndyStar recently won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigation into instances of dog bites within the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. The agency "has the highest rate of dog bites among police departments in the largest 20 U.S. cities," according to the IndyStar's investigation, which was conducted with help from the Marshall Project, AL.com and Invisible Institute.
Locally, however, the McHenry County sheriff's office's police dogs tend to work more as a deterrent, Patenaude said.
"If somebody hears the dog, they would far rather give up," he said.
None of the McHenry County sheriff's office's current police dogs have bitten a person during an apprehension, Patenaude said.
"We don't have the instance to have to use them," he said.
Although agencies like the Algonquin Police Department have paused their programs, reintroducing dogs to the force remains a possibility for the future, Markham said.
For now, however, the department is focused on filling vacancies left by several retirements. It's also unclear what duties a future police dog might have within the department.
In the meantime, Elgin's Police Department will continue to train Chance, knowing the golden retriever could be a catalyst for other departments to introduce comfort dogs of their own, Echevarria said.
"Chance just becomes another tool to help bring positive resolutions to all," Echevarria said.