The back-and-forth over the need to replace a recently retired drug-sniffing and patrol dog for the Saugerties police continued last week’s town board meeting.
Officers told the board that cutting the department’s K-9 program would be “taking a tool from [their] belt.” They said grants and other community support would help pay for it.
The department now has one dog, partnered with Sgt. Jeremy Rushkoski, but that K-9 is only trained in detecting explosives. Police Capt. Steve Filak argued that this is an opportune time to fill the open position, considering that it’s already budgeted for this year.
The position has been under scrutiny by council members since it was vacated by Sgt. Michael Craft, who purchased K-9 Sarah for $1 when they both retired in July. Left behind was Craft’s K-9 vehicle, which would be sold if the position were eliminated, and equipment. At an August meeting, an agenda item that would terminate the position was tabled with a 3-to-2 vote.
“With all the needs of the town, infrastructure, buildings, roofing, heating, equipment, machinery and manpower, the last thing we need is another dog,” said Councilman Paul Andreassen of the issue at the Aug. 15 meeting. “Fiscal restraint begins here and will continue throughout my time on the council.”
The department has a seasoned candidate in mind for the human half of the team — Officer Jen Culver, who also attended the meeting to make her case. Although she has only been a police officer for the past two years, Culver has worked with and trained dogs, she said, for 14 years. After working as a veterinary technician, nine of those years were devoted to official training of dogs in a police capacity — she claims to have trained dogs on search/rescue teams throughout the tri-state area.
“I decided to become a police officer because it was something I wanted to do, but I also wanted to work with dogs,” said Culver. “I [have been] able to bring closure to numerous families, finding people alive and deceased.”
Among these families are those of Roman Esturdo Najera Vasquez of Saugerties, whose body was found six feet underwater on March 3 by one of Culver’s dogs. The dog in question was loaned to the department for the effort free of charge — up until now, Culver has pursued dog training and certification separately to her police position. Not only would she donate the narcotics dog, but dogs with other certifications could be at the town’s disposal.
“All of my dogs will be available for work,” said Culver. “I have search dogs, two dogs that do water cadaver work. That instance in [March], I worked my dog two different days around a storm. Something that should’ve taken a week took us 45 minutes with the dog. All of them will be available.”
With respect to the contribution of Culver’s dog, Town Supervisor Fred Costello mentioned in passing that “ … folks [in the rescue party] that worked with canines their entire life said that was the best work they’d ever seen a canine do.”
Medical care for the animal, according to the officers, is provided for free by the Saugerties Animal Hospital.
Fido the force multiplier
In addition to the primary role of detecting illegal narcotics, the presence of a K-9 unit was described as a kind of “force multiplier” for police officers on active duty. “When you introduce a canine into a scenario, with its heightened senses, it can make one officer seem like a lot […] one canine is the equivalent of three police officers,” Filak said. He went on to offer several examples, including how canine units can contribute greatly to safely de-escalating encounters with potentially violent criminals, as well as the speed and efficiency with which a dog can search and clear a location of potential threats.
A narcotics dog’s primary function is quick drug detection — Rushkoski said that its presence on the police force shows criminals that “Saugerties is not a safe place to deal, use, or have drugs.” The officers cited the 18 opioid overdoses that struck Saugerties drug users this year, 14 of which ended up fatal.
“When it comes to a drug dog specifically, drugs and violence go hand in hand,” said Rushkoski. “If we don’t stay on top of the drugs and show criminals that this isn’t a safe place for drugs, property crimes will come up with it. Violence will follow — it might not be six months or a year, but it’s definitely cause-and-effect.”
Another drug-preventing function of the dog: to be called in by the Saugerties High School student resource officer on a sporadic basis to sniff students’ lockers and cars in the school parking lot. That’s a practice which, Rushkoski said, “keeps kids on their toes.”
While other police agencies maintain and lend out narcotics canines, it’s not a guarantee that they’ll be available when they’re needed, Rushkoski said. Rushkoski cited a recent incident where his dog was unable to locate a scent at a scene for the Kingston police, which recently eliminated their narcotics canine position, because it took the pair 45 minutes to arrive at the scene. The closest narcotics dog the department could borrow is employed with the sheriff’s department, and the closest cadaver dog other than Officer Culver’s is in Rockland County.
It is still unclear whether the town council will approve the position, although members told the officers their presentation was “compelling.”
“I appreciate the fact that the town board is looking at the different areas in the department to see if these are things we really need,” said Police Chief Sinagra of the board’s decision this week. “We have a lot of new board members under a lot of pressure to reduce taxes … I don’t look at this being something that’s adversarial. I thank them for giving us that opportunity to present our case. We know what equipment we need to do our job effectively. They’re not police officers, so if they don’t ask the questions we don’t know.”
Council members are unsure whether the final decision will be made at the board’s next meeting on Sept. 19. “Not much more to add at present time,” said Andreassen. “The board will take all information and comments into account and will make a decision at a future board meeting. For now, the future of the K-9 position is on hold.”