The Assist the Officer Foundation has expanded its mission to include K-9s, those special four-legged officers who sometimes need assistance after a long and distinguished career.
To date, ATO has assisted critically injured officers in need since its founding in 1991. No personal need is too great or small to prompt this special organization to come forward with grants or fundraisers.
Recently it came to the ATO board’s attention that the K-9s in the HPD Narcotics K-9 Detail do not have what amounts to “retirement benefits,” nor does Narcotics have a specific organization that routinely purchases new dogs to replace retired dogs. Further emphasizing this need is the fact that the necessity has come about to replace five dogs in 2017 and 2018 while the budget was limited to two replacements.
Narcotics is one of three divisions with four-legged HPD officers. Those K-9s in Patrol and the Bomb Squad are now under retirement and replacement provisions. But the Narc dogs are not.
“The ATO board has voted to support this endeavor to raise funds to support Narcotics K-9 dogs as they retire and to eventually assist Narcotics officers with the purchase of additional dogs,” ATO chairman Tom Hayes said. “We want to help pay for a portion of these costs.”
The board vote officially placed the Narc K-9s under the umbrella of ATO, not to be confused with the Department’s two other K-9 groups.
Hayes said one Narc K-9 has already retired this year. The planned retirement of a second dog – 13 ½-year-old Sita – prompted Hayes and ATO to make this change.
“The ATO board along with Narcotics officers agreed that there is a lack of support for Narcotics dogs,” Hayes explained. “The bomb dogs are supported by the federal government and the Patrol dogs have their own support groups,” including the Houston Police Foundation.
In the future, the ATO chairman explained that the board will be working “hand-in-hand with Narcotics to identify their needs and the mechanism to accomplish it.” .
Narcotics Officer and K-9 handler Kristin Uhlin told the Badge & Gun that the timing couldn’t be better. She handles K-9 Officer Sita and knows well the importance of the upkeep and replacement of those officers with the special ability to sniff out the odors of illegal drugs.
Uhlin said the city currently pays the dog food and vet bills for each of the Narcotics Unit’s 12 dogs, each of whom live with their handlers.
Earlier this year, Narcotics K-9 Officer Djanga (pronounced with a silent D) retired at age 9. “When the dog retires, the handler usually keeps the dog,” Uhlin explained. “Very rarely do we give the dog to somebody else. They have to pay the vet and food costs. When a dog retires it’s usually due to age or health and the handler inherit the vet bills”.
“When they die they are usually cremated, which is a $200 to $400 expense.”
Djanga was readily adopted by her previous handler, retired Narcotics Officer Brad Piel, the K-9’s first handler. “He’s stayed in touch and asked about her,” Uhlin said. “He was more than happy to take her. I called him and he said he’d love to have her. Brad loves her.”
She, like Uhlin’s partner Sita, is a Belgian Malinois or “a Mal.” Narcotics has six Mals and six German Shepherds – provided the unit can find replacement for Sita. And, by the way, Sita will become – surprise! – the property of her handler upon her official retirement.
This means Uhlin will own one dog and handle a second one. Both will be quartered on the premises of her home, one at the City’s expense, the other on her own. Eventually, ATO will help curb these costs.
Uhlin said Narcotics trainers usually take a week to test and evaluate a dog before bringing it home to Houston. A single purpose narcotics detection K-9 cost ranges from $8,000 to $9,000. “After selecting a dog to bring home, the handler and K-9 go through 6 weeks of training and a certification before hitting the streets,” the handler explained, adding that it usually takes up to two years for an officer and the dog to develop an effective bond.
As any HPD officer who has ever worked with a K-9 will tell you, it’s impossible to place a value on a dog capable of sniffing out bombs, narcotics and, well, human beings.
Uhlin said in the past Narcotics has used asset forfeiture money to buy narcotics dogs. This money is money that has been seized with the help of the narcotics K-9.
Of course, the annual amounts actually recovered by the Narcotics K-9s total millions of dollars. Since January of 2017 to present day the narcotics K-9 detail has seized approximately $110,608,006.75 dollars in street value of narcotics and $14,217,152.00 dollars in seized currency.
Uhlin pointed out that if ATO helps raise more money than what is needed for new dogs and the retirement benefits of the retired dogs “we will make sure the money is returned to ATO to help any (human) officer in need.”