Norris heels police dog unit

Poor evaluations prompt transfer of 12 people on Baltimore force

February 14, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Three sergeants and nine officers are being removed from the Baltimore Police Department's canine unit because they performed poorly during a recent evaluation and the dogs could be "dangerous" to the public, police officials said yesterday.

"We're trying to protect the public from a dangerous thing," police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said yesterday. "These are police dogs."

The dogs and handlers were evaluated recently by a North Carolina dog expert after police officials began getting complaints from officers on the streets about the performance of the unit, police officials said.

Police officials decided to remove the handlers and supervisors from the unit, which has 23 teams of officers and dogs, because confidence in them had "eroded," Norris said.

Norris also noted a "liability issue" involving potential dog bites, though police statistics do not appear to show a widespread problem. Last year, police officials reported that one dog bit a suspect.

Besides the potential danger, police commanders say they also were upset by the unit's poor performance. This year, officers in the unit have arrested 12 people, stopped 517 cars, written 131 tickets and been dispatched on 408 calls.

Maj. Robert F. Biemiller, the unit's commander, said those statistics were far too low.

"We have a lot of crime in this city," Biemiller said. "I would think any officer could contribute to our mission of crime reduction better than that. They didn't work well as a team. We're just looking for a little change, a little energy."

Police officials refused to name the officers who were being transferred. They were notified of their removal Tuesday and will be dispatched next week to patrol assignments of their choice, the officials said.

Union officials said they were examining the transfers.

"We're going to request to see those evaluations," said Gary McLhinney, president of the local police union. "We have no way of knowing whether the evaluations were fair and whether they were relevant to the job they are being asked to perform."

Police officials said the nine canine teams failed many simple tests: several dogs had trouble finding drugs; several failed to obey simple commands, such as heeling, sitting, staying or jumping over a hurdle; at least one failed to protect its handler; others were nearly "unmanageable."

Nine teams failed the test; seven teams passed but will need a second evaluation; the other seven teams passed, officials said.

The evaluator reported that the unit was in such bad shape that she was "surprised we had not had any lawsuits," said Olive Waxter, executive director of the Baltimore Police Foundation, which paid the obedience expert $1,000 to test the dogs.

The North Carolina expert, Julie Grimes, owner of Animalworks, said the department had "some outstanding teams and others that did not meet minimum standards."

Police dogs are used to find drugs, guns and bombs. They often are sent into buildings to search for suspects or hunt suspects fleeing into woods. They also help control crowds and protect police in dangerous situations.

The city's canine unit has a checkered history. At one time, it was known as one of the premier units in the country. Then, in the late 1960s, police officials pulled the canine units from neighborhoods after dogs bit several people, sparking angry protests.

The unit shrank in size during the next three decades, and Norris has sought to build it again. Last fall, the unit received five European dogs under a grant from a private foundation.

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