Patrol Officer with a Police Dog

by Bill Lewis II

One of the more interesting dilemmas that occur within police work is the patrol-related assignment of a K9 handler to a designated beat, zone or district assignment.  You might even be such a handler – but – are you really a K9 handler or are you just a patrol officer working with a police dog?

As I look at the potential for civil liability, one of the things most concerning to me is the fact that “officers” are being assigned a police dog with apparently no regard for the assignment of the handler and the utilization of the police dog to best serve the community and the police department.  The primary duties of these handlers do not involve a police dog.

A police dog is an invaluable resource.  Most K9 programs are established to primarily augment police services within a community. Highly-skilled and trained teams of handlers and police dogs have evolved from these programs and are used to supplement police operations to locate individuals, contraband and to apprehend criminal offenders.

There are law enforcement agencies that have K9 teams function primarily in a patrol officer capacity – not as a K9 handler – assigned to a beat or district and responsible for handling calls for service and related patrol functions not necessarily associated with working a police dog.  These K9 teams are requested for and will often respond to K9-related calls for service or high risk incidents if they are available.

Regarding liability, the majority of mistakes made by handlers usually involve poor decision making, lack of training and a lack of confidence in the ability of the K9 team because of limited experiences.  When a K9 handler is assigned other duties and “K9” is not the primary function, the handler does not have the opportunity to practice his/her craft regularly and performance is often impacted.  K9 training is often cancelled because “K9” isn’t really the primary function and it is not being prioritized.

When handlers are not provided with opportunities to experience more real-world and training situations related to proper decision making with respect to K9 deployments, they are being limited and often restricted to improve their performance and make proper decisions.  I liken this situation to a second-string quarterback who receives limited snaps during practice and then he is placed into the big game without warning – he has the potential to achieve and be successful, but his limited experience in practice and real game situations will most often negatively affect his initial decision making and mechanical skills.  In police work, we do not often get second chances in big game situations.

Most K9 trainers and supervisors agree that is usually takes from six months to one year for a K9 handler and police dog to get accustomed to working as a team to achieve a minimal level of acceptable proficiency.  However, continued training and constant field experience is required to maintain that level of proficiency and strive to improve performance beyond a minimal acceptable level as a best practice.

There are many factors which cause an agency to assign its K9 handlers to beat assignments in lieu of a city-wide position – budget, staffing, “we’ve always done it that way,” and a lack of knowledge by administrators of the specific liabilities.   I’m aware of some agencies that previously allowed their handlers to “roam the city” available and ready to respond to calls for service or requests for the services of the K9 team – but some handlers abused that position and were not always available and the ability to roam was terminated.  Also, recent cutbacks in budgets and staffing have forced handlers into patrol officer beat assignments

I believe a K9 handler should be assigned primarily as a K9 team and other duties and responsibilities can be assigned collaterally.  To maximize the utilization of a police dog and its availability, it is usually most effective when the police dog is assigned to a handler working a patrol function.

To determine the best method of assignment, I’m not suggesting the best practice is to allow K9 handlers to drive around until the K9-call-for-service occurs and is dispatched.  In larger agencies, that practice is usually acceptable and logical due to the high amount of service calls.  It is not always practical in the smaller agencies.

Some agencies allow the K9 team to roam the city or jurisdiction and/or assign them to particular zones or districts if more than one K9 team is working.  The K9 team should ideally and practically be a support unit for patrol.  If the K9 team itself is not needed for a K9-function, the K9 handler is capable of serving in a backup officer role (without the dog) for high risk or priority calls requiring the presence of two officers.

The K9 handler may be assigned to handle single officer response calls if other officers are not available or staffing is short this particular shift and it is determined the call should not last a lengthy amount of time.  I’ve seen policies that require a dispatcher to contact the Watch Commander if a K9 handler is to be sent on a potential report or investigative call that may last longer than 30 minutes.

One of the problems with K9 handlers assigned as patrol officers occurs when that handler is on-scene at a particular call which will not allow him/her to leave should another priority call occur that would normally require the assistance and response of a K9 team.

I am well aware of agencies that deploy their K9 handlers as beat officers.  Unfortunately, these handlers may never see a time when that changes to a more logical and common sense approach to reduce risks and limit liability.  Budget and money are also a large part of the equation and considerations.  If you are working at such an agency, and have not had the opportunity to request such a change, maybe you can use some of the liability-related justifications herein to assist your efforts.  However, be smart – if staffing or current budgets do not allow such a change to occur at this time, perhaps, suggest a trial period on a limited basis when staffing can support it.

There is a challenge in being a K9 handler assigned as a patrol officer with a police dog.  You will probably need to work harder to maintain your level of proficiency as a K9 team and that might even mean volunteering some of your own time to achieve the results desired.  If you can’t maintain an acceptable level of proficiency and the ongoing risks for failure continually exist, you might consider your options and seek assistance to improve your situation.

  Bill Lewis II © June 2013

This article was first published in “K-9 Cop Magazine” (July/August 2013).