Police dogs being moved

County won't reopen controversial facility, will shift canine units

November 29, 2006|By Nick Shields and Josh Mitchell | Nick Shields and Josh Mitchell,sun reporters

A Baltimore County police canine facility that was closed for environmental testing after the cancer deaths of several dogs will not reopen, the department announced yesterday.

Under pressure from the County Council and police union leaders, the department said yesterday the canine unit will operate from four precinct houses throughout the county. The decision appears to resolve a year-long dispute between the union and the Police Department over the canine facility, built on a former landfill.

Union leaders have blamed the deaths of at least four dogs on the facility, while county officials say tests showed no environmental links. Police said that the change is designed in part to speed response times for the canine unit.

Cole B. Weston, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police, said yesterday that he was pleased with the decision.

"We've been able to get our point across that there was some risk to the canines and obviously to the handlers that work there," he said.

The canine unit had opened in the Southwest Area Park in the Baltimore Highlands area two years ago. In September 2005, police closed the facility after two dogs died and about 30 employees filed injury reports complaining of headaches, dizziness and respiratory problems. In all, four police dogs that had been stationed at the facility died of cancer, according to the police union.

In January, after an estimated $300,000 in environmental testing, Baltimore County officials declared the canine facility safe and found no environmental links to the deaths of the police dogs. County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan said then that he planned to meet with the union and hoped to have the facility reopened within six weeks.

In May, a report commissioned by the county police union and conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health, determined the site should remain closed until lingering questions about its safety were answered.

Also that month, all seven council members signed a letter to County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and Sheridan urging more tests at the facility, writing that "serious doubts remain about the health issues."

"We believe that the County has a duty to err on the side of caution when the stakes are so high," the letter stated. "The delay caused by additional testing is more than offset by the potential for harm if the facility is re-opened under this cloud of uncertainty."

In August county government officials issued a rebuttal to the union-commissioned report, calling it flawed and reiterating that the site is "environmentally safe."

Yesterday, a spokesman for Smith said the executive supported the new plan as a way to improve the operation of the Police Department.

"This has nothing to do with the site. This is all about public safety," said the spokesman, Donald I. Mohler, maintaining that the facility poses no danger to humans or dogs.

Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat whose district includes the park, said yesterday that he signed the May letter because he wanted to show that the council was addressing the concerns of police officers. But he said he is convinced the park is "perfectly safe" and that he is looking at possible recreational uses for the site.

Robert J. Barrett, the county's recreation and parks director, said area recreation leaders have already voiced interest in using the site, perhaps for storage. The area around the canine unit's building, which includes a playground, reopened in the summer.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat, said he still has safety concerns, and that he would not support the site being used as a work area for full-time employees.

In its announcement that the canine unit would work out of the Woodlawn, Franklin, White Marsh and North Point precincts, the Police Department said the change would "allow for more efficient response to community needs."

Weston agreed with the department's concern about the former facility's location.

"As it relates to geography, it absolutely was put in a spot that was not very accessible," Weston said.

It was unclear, police said, where a new canine training facility will be located. Since the Southwest Area Park's closure, training has taken place with other agencies, including the state police and the Maryland Transportation Authority Police.

In its announcement yesterday, the Police Department also said it is creating a Community Resources Bureau to enhance community-policing programs and prevent juvenile crime. From January through June of this year, juveniles accounted for slightly more than 30 percent of all violent crime arrests in the county.

The department also announced that its Human Resources Bureau would be eliminated, and the Administrative and Technical Services Bureau will take on recruiting, hiring and training responsibilities.

The changes are to take effect Friday, police said.nicholas.shields@baltsun.com josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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