City can add bark with K-9s

When Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling appeared before City Council on Oct. 9, she came armed with facts about how nine department retirements at the end of 2012 had negatively affected crime-fighting efforts.

As of that day – 10 months into the current year – all but one of the vacant positions had been filled, but the new officers were not yet on patrol because of training requirements.

According to Freehling, during the first six months of 2013, serious crime was up 14 percent while less-serious crime was down 18 percent.

On paper, the latter statistic seems to paint a rosy picture that the city hasn’t really suffered on the less-serious crime front – the one with which patrol officers most often deal – despite having fewer officers available for patrols. Under the city’s Act 47 financial recovery plan, the department is budgeted for 66 officers but has been operating with 57.

Unfortunately, the less-serious-crime statistic alone fails to tell the full story. As noted by Freehling, that number doesn’t expose the fact that fewer patrols result in less identification of crime. At the same time, less police visibility leads to bolder criminals willing to commit more serious crimes.

Altoona needs its full complement of officers on the streets, but perhaps the city could benefit from an extra resource. It is a resource – a deterrent – that the western Pennsylvania city of Butler began using this year after about eight months of preparation.

For Butler, that extra resource is two K-9 dogs that the city put in service this year despite the city’s serious financial problems. The money obstacle was overcome by an outpouring of community support initiated by a businessman’s one-year, $10,000 interest-free loan to the city to launch the K-9 effort.

That loan planted the seed for a fundraising campaign that raised more than $100,000 – enough to buy and train two police dogs and train and equip their handlers. Publicity surrounding the start of the K-9 effort delivered the message that those planning criminal actions should consider what it would be like to come face to face with one of the dogs.

At a well-publicized meeting at the Butler Fire Department headquarters as the campaign was getting under way, the K-9 of a nearby community and its handler demonstrated the dog’s power and its ability to detect the presence of illegal drugs, which at that meeting had been “planted” in a fire hose.

Understandably, Freehling’s main concern now is to get her department fully staffed. However, like Butler, perhaps this city also could benefit from a K-9 or two, if financial support were to become available.

Before April 2012, the prospect of having a K-9 dog in Butler was not considered a possibility anytime soon, if ever. A year and a half later, two K-9s are on duty with their handlers.

There’s still crime in Butler – a lot of it tied to illegal drugs. But the presence of the dogs has made a positive impact in reducing the on-street drug sales that had been becoming increasingly bold.

K-9s might be right for Altoona or they might not be. It would behoove city leaders to discuss the possible addition and then reach out for the community’s opinion.

One businessman in Butler made a difference for which most people in that city are grateful. Perhaps there are business people and residents of Altoona who harbor similar views and are willing to do more than talk about the issue. City leaders should find out.