The San Diego Police Department (SDPD) was officially established on May 16, 1889, but its roots date back to 1850, when the city council approved the construction of a town jail and appointed Agostin Haraszthy as town marshal and county sheriff. More notable milestones include the installation of one-way radios in patrol cars (1932) and the city’s first crime lab (1939).
In 1984 the SDPD’s K9 Unit was launched, becoming an integral part of the department’s crime-fighting efforts.
Supported by the San Diego Police Foundation
Almost 100 dogs have served in the SDPD’s K9 Unit, greatly contributing to the safety of their respective handlers and fellow officers. According to former SDPD SWAT officer and K9 supervisor Bill Nelson, they allow officers to exercise even greater caution before having to use their firearm. Their vital work is made possible through the San Diego Police Foundation (SDPF).
The SDPF’s K9 Program is one of four fundraising initiatives managed by the nonprofit foundation; the others contribute to efforts to protect police from rifle fire, purchase necessary equipment, and provide crucial training exercises to officers.
Money donated to the K9 program is used to purchase training equipment for potential patrol dogs. These dogs work alongside officers on a 24-7 basis and, in addition to patrolling the streets, can be useful in vehicle pursuits and robberies. They can also clear areas for officers and search for fleeing or hidden suspects.
In addition to the SDPF, dogs who serve as part of the SDPD’s K9 Unit are supported in retirement by the San Diego Police Canine Association (SDPCA). Because participating dogs do not have medical plans, the SDPCA removes liability from the handler by covering food, shelter, and necessary medical expenses.
Partnership with VCA Animal Specialty Group
According to SDPD K9 Unit lieutenant Tony Lessa, numerous dogs have suffered injuries or been shot or stabbed while on active duty. To ensure the unit’s dogs receive the best care possible, the SDPD partners with VCA Animal Specialty Group, which offers 24-hour emergency care and boasts the latest diagnostic techniques and treatments. Furthering the support of these animals, the hospital also operates VCA Charities, a nonprofit that raises funds on behalf of police dogs and pets of all kinds. Its Pennies for Pets Program recently generated in excess of $565,000.
“These canines are officers. They are helping keep us all safe . . . and providing a lot of safety to our human officers, as well,” said VCA Charities regional operations director Matt Monte. “And just like any other dog, they all need the care and wellness that your own pet at home needs, and VCA is proud to do that and VCA Charities is proud to support the officers through the San Diego Police Foundation.”
Memorial Built in 2018
Despite several patrol dogs being injured while on active duty, only one has been killed in the line of duty since 1984. That dog was Bando, a German Shepherd who was tragically struck by a car and killed in 1994. He was memorialized in 2018 with the construction of a bronze statue bearing his resemblance. The names of other K9s and their handlers are listed below the statue, ensuring their work will always be remembered. The statue and accompanying memorial wall were paid for via donations to the SDPF.
Types of Police Dogs
Police dogs do not only accompany their handlers to help apprehend suspects or keep them safe in dangerous situations. They can be specially trained to track suspects by following their scent, or they can be used to sniff for narcotics or bombs. One of the SDPD’s current K9 dogs, Max, is a golden retriever who is trained in bomb detection. Funded through a grant with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technologies division, Max has been used at large events such as Comic-Con.
Training dogs for bomb detection involves volunteers wearing explosive devices that the dogs must sniff out. Generally, training is an intensive 10-week course in which dogs learn to differentiate and recognize in excess of 10,000 different smells associated with explosives. Dogs can be trained to locate explosives or narcotics, but never both, as the dogs are unable to communicate which they have found to their handler.
Handler Training and Responsibilities
Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds, when properly trained, are the most effective police dogs, although it’s essential that they begin training at a young age. The dog, which should already know basic commands upon arrival to the unit, is sent to a 4-12-week training program with its handler. The handler, meanwhile, must also complete courses in tracking, safety, dog obedience, and crowd control, among others, through the United States Police Canine Association.
Because K9 officers are more apt to receive attention from the public, they should be prepared to deal with people in a respectful manner while ensuring that their dog is under their control and doesn’t feel threatened. Moreover, K9 officers are required to care for the dog at their home; the animal should be exercised adequately and cared for if the officer must leave for an extended period.