Franklin Countys First News

Letter to the Editor: Truth time on County K9s

Truth Time: Where to start? I guess with how easy it is to draw assumptions that are without merit and not supported by facts. There seems to be a lot of that being thrown about over the past few months.

So, here we go…….. Yes, I, David Rackliffe, own a business, Von Woden Kennels, where I breed German Shepherd Dogs. By Sheriff’s Office policy, that is considered outside employment and must be approved by the Sheriff. That employment was first approved under Sheriff Dennis Pike in 2008 and continued under Sheriff Scott Nichols after he took office in 2013. Have I sold products and services to Franklin County? Yes. Under Sheriff Dennis Pike, and with the approval of the County Commissioners, I provided boarding for County K9’s while handlers were away on vacations. I also have provided Police Dog Boarding for Maine State Police, Somerset County Sheriff’s Office and Oxford County Sheriff’s Office as well as the United States Border Patrol. I have specialized training in handling police K9’s and my kennel facility was built specifically to ensure I can safely house police K9’s. (You should see the list of requirements that the Federal Government has in order to board their dogs). I have however, never charged any boarding fees for kenneling my own police K9, even when I went on vacation and hired someone to come take care of my dogs, I absorbed all of that cost. In fact, I frequently absorb costs for my police K9’s that the County should be paying for, as do many handlers. For clarification, I have also been paid boarding fees by Franklin County since Sheriff Nichols took office, but that is a rare event, and has always been done only when other handlers were on vacation and not able to care for their own dog, and approved by the County Commissioners.

Since there is a tendency for some to tell a little bit of truth with a bunch of lies, let’s keep going so we can shed some more light into the darkness.

ALL financial expenditures for the Sheriff’s Office (and any other county agency) must be approved by the County Commissioners. Sheriff Dennis Pike, Sheriff Scott Nichols and I as well as the rest of the Sheriff’s Office Administration have always ensured that the Commissioners were aware they were buying services and products from an employee. I have given them some really good deals. Keep reading.

Whew, that was tough, so much truth, I feel better already. Let’s keep going. Under Sheriff Dennis Pike I purchased my very first Police K9 out of my pocket at a cost of $4500. After about 3 years, I was reimbursed for most of that cost by the County. Next, under Sheriff Dennis Pike I donated a German Shepherd Dog to Franklin County with the permission of the County Commissioners for another handler. Donated means I gave the dog to the County for FREE in case anyone is unclear on that. Not a great way to make money for a business. About a year later, I SOLD a German Shepherd Dog to Franklin County, while I was employed under Sheriff Dennis Pike, with the consent of the County Commissioners. I sold that dog for $3000. I paid almost $2000 with shipping costs. That dog was imported from Belgium. Can anyone tell me what it costs to feed a dog for a year with a quality food? How about $500? That’s about right. Can anyone tell me what it costs for vet expenses, heartworm medication, flea and tick medications for a year? How about $500? Yeah, that’s about right, so I sold the dog for about what I had invested in him. Again, not a great way for a business to make money, selling your product at cost. Maybe I’m not so good at this business stuff…… Oh, and at that time, the average cost for a prospective police K9 with similar training was around $6000.

This past year, that dog, Justice passed away. Oh, and by the way, since I was previously accused by one of Eddie’s staunch supporters of stealing from the County by using that dog for breeding purposes, the contract I had with the County included a condition that I had all and exclusive breeding rights to Justice. Out of one of the last litters that Justice produced, I kept a special dog, he was very rebellious. This past year, I donated that dog to Franklin County and he is currently my partner and police K9. Oh, I paid almost $2000 out of my pocket to attend specialized training with this dog over his first year of life, before I donated him, again, that means FREE. His name is Rebel. Also, for the first year plus of his life, I paid for all of his vet expenses and food. I’m thinking I may be really bad at this business stuff. That would be called “selling at a loss.” That’s definitely not a good way to make money. And, again, the average cost for a police K9 prospect today in Maine is $8000.

So, in addition to donating two dogs and selling one at cost to the County that I serve, I have sold dogs to Maine State Police, South Berwick Police, Oxford County Sheriff’s Office and Knox County Sheriff’s Office. I also have a dog working for a Police Department in Massachusetts and two that were deployed to the Middle East to protect our troops. There is also a dog from my kennel that is the first German Shepherd Dog to ever win the civilian dog sport competition, Iron Will, held annually in South Carolina. That competition is almost always won by a Malinois. Can you see my pride? It should be glowing right now.

Should we continue dispelling the mistruths? Are you tired of reading yet? Should I do this as a video? I could probably be entertaining. Maybe not.

Let’s continue with All Points Maine Police Canines. Every organization that is not a business and wants to have a bank account has to file paperwork with the State, usually as a not for profit. That’s what All Points is. We modeled this after another K9 training group in Maine who also train dogs and handlers for municipal and county agencies from across the state. Yes, I serve on the board of that not for profit, as does a K9 handler from Norway Police Department and a Deputy from Washington County Sheriff’s Office. Someone had to do the paperwork to create the not for profit, and that turned out to be me. So, yes, my signature is on the incorporation petition to the State.

We have police departments from across Maine that were seeking an alternative to the K9 training offered at the Maine State Police Canine Training Group. Not that there is anything wrong with their training, but not all gloves fit every hand. Just ask OJ. Franklin County was in a unique position to start a new K9 training group since we had a K9 Trainer and an Assistant Trainer, both of which were accomplishments achieved under Sheriff Dennis Pike. That Dennis, he sure is a nice guy. He always supported the K9 program because he knew how valuable the dog teams are. Six years ago, we jumped off and started our own K9 program with just Franklin County’s three K9 teams and Somerset County’s team. Over the past few years, we have added teams from Oxford County (K9 team no longer active), Norway Police Department, Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Rumford Police Department, Knox County Sheriff’s Office and Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office, as well as Pleasant Point Police Department. Do you know where Pleasant Point is? Can you find it on the map? Yeah, it’s waaaaaaaaaaaaay over there………

This training group was initiated to create a network of K9 trainers and teams from across the state that could train in various locations yet have one “organization”. We have achieved that as we have a trainer with Washington County who routinely holds training from Bangor to Machias. There is also an adjunct K9 trainer with about 100 years of experience (ok, really about 40) who is a retired Game Warden who works with the teams over that way as well. We also have a retired K9 Trainer from South Portland Police Department who provides training opportunities for us by traveling here to Franklin County as well as over in Oxford County from time to time, at no cost, on his own time and at his own expense. He has been training K9s for over 25 years. So, despite the accusations that All Points is an organization designed to perpetuate my business, it is actually a group of like minded people who want to provide the best K9 training we can. Part of that is to ensure that the training is not dependent on any particular person, whether that be the sheriff from any county or any single person, including me. This group was designed as a not for profit to be perpetual, beyond my retirement, beyond Sheriff Nichols’ terms of service. We are still working to ensure that longevity.

I just gotta keep going. Can you keep reading? There’s more truth to be told.

The K9 maintenance training we do is normally scheduled once each week, mostly in Franklin County, but occasionally outside of our county. Maintenance training is the weekly training that is required to maintain the K9 team’s proficiency and to continue to develop the team after initial certification. The national standard is one eight hour day per week. When our K9 teams attend training, as much as possible, it is scheduled for when they are already working, or hours are swapped, thus reducing overtime paid for training. This is an option that would not be available if we trained with another group, as we would be at their mercy of when they chose to schedule training. Our K9 handlers are also available to assist with calls while we are training in Franklin County, regardless of whether the dog is needed or not, again helping to maintain the great law enforcement services the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office provides to our community. We have even had situations develop while we were doing K9 training where other police K9 teams from outside of Franklin County went to assist in those situations, providing additional manpower that would not have been available otherwise, making it safer for everyone.

The time Franklin County’s K9 trainers spend training all those teams is no greater than the time that would be required to only train our own teams and to maintain our trainer certifications. This training group has also formed a state-wide information sharing network between the handlers. Believe it or not, those involved in criminal activity do not always stay within the borders of one county. Our K9 handlers have helped one another solve crimes across the state. We even saved Franklin County taxpayers from having to transport a person arrested in Franklin County to Washington County. Franklin County Deputies arrested a man on warrants out of Washington County during one of our K9 training days. The Deputy in attendance from Washington County transported that person at the end of the K9 training day to the jail in Washington County, thus saving the Franklin County taxpayers from having to send our jail transport officer on that trip (about 8 hours round trip) as well as the cost for feeding and housing that person while waiting to be transported.

Let’s talk some more about costs, as it has been said that it would be cheaper for the taxpayers to send our County K9 teams to the training program held at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy (MCJA) in Vassalboro. The training program conducted through All Points Maine Police Canines is an approved K9 training program through the MCJA and the cost is exactly the same. The MCJA bills all agencies for certification, not for training. This year, we also started certifying our K9 teams through the United States Police Canine Association (USPCA), a national certification organization. It is becoming more of a national trend to have more than one organization certify K9 teams. The USPCA does not have a minimum hours requirement for certification as the MCJA does. The USPCA is a competency based certification. Because of this, we were able to certify and begin deploying K9 teams much sooner, giving the taxpayers more for their dollar. Once those K9 teams have the additional hours of training required by the MCJA, a second certification is done under the MCJA. Additionally, since most all of the training is done here in Franklin County, there is no travel or meal costs for the taxpayer as there would be to attend the MCJA program. County policy states that employees traveling outside of the county for training must be paid for their meals. That could definitely add up. Now calculate daily trips from Farmington to Vassalboro and back, Monday through Friday, every day, for 8 to10 weeks for a single purpose drug team and an additional 14 weeks for a dual certified drug and patrol team. That’s a lot of gas, wear and tear on a vehicle and officer time to be paid for, most of which is saved by training locally. Why would a local Police Department pay all that extra cost? Then, there is all the mandatory maintenance training, a minimum of two days per month for single purpose teams, would also require that same travel costs, every month for the service-life of the K9 team. Not all training through that program is held in Vassalboro, there are times when teams would have to travel to Bangor, Augusta, Lewiston, South Portland and other places in the state to attend training. We do acknowledge that for most of the K9 teams that come here to train, it would be cheaper for them to train elsewhere, yet they come here anyway. That should say something to every person about the quality of training, as well as the training model that we have developed.

Manpower is also greatly affected by sending an officer and a K9 to training. Pulling an officer off from the road for 8, 10 or 14 weeks to attend a school has extensive costs. Our training model for initial “schools” prior to certification require only one or two days per week on average. This allows the K9 officer to continue working a majority of their scheduled shifts and reduces the requirement for agencies to either be an officer short or incur more overtime to fill that officer’s shifts while they are at training. By spreading out the training days to only one or two days per week, rather than five days a week for months on end, it allows for better planning for staffing and reduced overtime, thus providing better service at a lower cost to the taxpayer. We need to remember that it is the citizens, visitors and taxpayers that we serve, not ourselves. We must always focus on doing what best serves those we have committed to serving. There are other benefits to our training model as well, like increased time between training days that the handler can work independently with their dog and reduced stress on the dog. But that is another topic entirely.

So, we have talked about the cost of the program, what are the benefits? So, I’ll start by answering that with a question: What is the value of a life? All our K9’s are trained to find people. Our K9’s are primarily a locating tool. Whether being used to find a child who wandered off from home, an elderly person who took a walk in the woods and can’t remember how to get home or criminals fleeing from a crime scene. Our dogs are trained to track them and locate them. Just a few months ago, Sergeant Nathan Bean and K9 Bain tracked an elderly person who had walked away from their home, became confused and could not be located by family. The K9 team quickly located the person and with the help from other law enforcement, fire and EMS, the person was safely returned to their home. There have been numerous such incidents carried out by our K9 Teams. Just over a year ago, one of our K9 teams tracked a suicidal person and found them moments away from death. Because of the rapid availability of the K9, the excellent training and the quick actions of the officers involved, that person’s life was saved. A few years ago, there was a situation where K9 Justice and I located an older man who had wandered away from home and gotten tangled up in vines and fences. He was unable to yell for help and despite numerous people searching for him, he could not be found until the K9 Team located him. Our teams have found many lost children and adults, always returning them safely to their families. So, what is the value of a life?

As a locating tool, the K9 Teams are also trained to locate items with human scent. Our teams have discovered things like expended bullet casings at crime scenes, discarded jewelry on a track from a burglary, safes and suitcases with valuable documents that were thrown into thick woods and bushes that were searched unsuccessfully for hours by police, but quickly found by the K9 Teams. Just this past summer we have had K9 Teams who twice found items that were discarded from a burglary that would have gone unrecovered without the K9. Sometimes the value in that is recovering a family heirloom, or perhaps something that has some evidentiary value to the identity of the suspect. Often those things would never be found without the K9.

The K9 Teams are also trained to find illegal drugs. One case a few years ago, it was the K9 Team that discovered the drug evidence that was important in proving the case. Officers had searched extensively for the drugs they knew had to be there and had come up empty handed. Once again, K9 Justice could smell what no one could see. The drugs were found and a conviction was had.

The effect of our training group extends far beyond our little county. The K9 Teams that train here have had great success, whether in Knox County where two young children were found by the K9 Team a few months ago, or Somerset, Kennebec and Oxford counties where huge drug seizures have been had already this year. Those seizures have taken enormous amounts of potentially fatal narcotics off from the streets and kept them out of the hands of young people and children, likely preventing numerous drug overdoses, and quite likely a few deaths. So, one final time; what is the value of a life?

Being a K9 Handler and a K9 Trainer has been one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done. One of the most frequently asked questions in an interview for a police officer position is, “Why do you want to be a police officer.” The most common answer is, “Because I want to help people.” As a K9 Handler we frequently have the opportunity to do just that. Bringing people home safely, keeping drugs out of the hands of children and returning lost valuables is just a part of what we do, but it is some of the most satisfying things you could ever hope to accomplish.

David Rackliffe

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