City considering bringing back K-9 unit

A majority of the Laguna Beach City Council have expressed support for restoring police-dog services to help sniff out drugs and locate suspects.

During a January council meeting, a police detective said recent crime trends warrant bringing back the K-9 program, which ended in 2003.

"The drug problem in Laguna Beach is a lot more serious than what the police blotter portrays," Larry Bammer, president of the Laguna Beach Police Employees Assn., told the council. "Many of those cases do not get into the press because of ongoing criminal investigations."

Bammer noted a recent case at Laguna Beach High School, where a campus security officer found two students with heroin.

"[The case] sent shock waves throughout social media, through households, through the school district," Bammer said. "[Drug use] is not uncommon."

The Orange County Sheriff's Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection provide Laguna with police-dog units on an as-needed basis.

"The problem we have in reaching out to those [agencies] is that unless we have the person in the car, arrested, we don't have the ability to detain those people and wait [15 to 30 minutes]," Bammer said. "I recall a time when a car sat in a tow yard for 24 hours before we could find an Orange County Sheriff's Department K-9 to come in and locate — with a dog — 9 ounces of heroin.

"Having a police K-9 in this town affords the ability to get that person over to the car stop and within minutes know if there are drugs being transported through our town."

The K-9 unit could also help in locating a missing person or lost child, following a fleeing suspect and investigating more extensive narcotics cases, Laguna Beach police Capt. Jason Kravetz said.

But many departments nationwide are having to weigh the costs, Kravetz wrote in a follow-up email.

Expenses, Kravetz said, include court-mandated time for the handler to groom and clean the dog and its pen, as much as eight hours of weekly training, a special police car and food.

K-9 units have been a boon to the nearby Newport Beach Police Department, officers there say.

The city has two Belgian malinois, Jardo and Elko, who live with officers Mike Fletcher and Roland Stucken, respectively.

The dogs help find drugs and alert officers to suspects, Newport Beach police spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella wrote in an email.

"Often, less force is necessary to bring a suspect into custody in an incident involving a canine," she wrote. "Suspects are more likely to give themselves up when their hiding place is discovered by a canine ... they understand that they might suffer a bite."

The dogs also protect officers and reportedly save 800 to 1,000 staff hours a year.

"The canines are incredibly effective at searching for evidence, in addition to the assistance they provide in searching for and apprehending suspects," Manzella said.

Start-up costs for a K-9 team are about $50,000, including purchase price, training, police car and kennel.

"This is far less than the cost of an officer's annual salary," Manzella said.

An officer's home must meet certain requirements if a member of the K-9 unit is to live there. For instance, it must be able to accommodate a large kennel.

Laguna's first K-9 unit started in 1988, Kravetz said.

Cpl. Ted Falencki supervised Gero, a German shepherd, until the dog retired in 1996.

The department then purchased another German shepherd, Max, who was supervised by former Officer Manny Nunez. Max served until medical reasons forced him to retire in November 2003, Kravetz said.

The program was discontinued for a couple of reasons, Kravetz explained in an email, including economic issues. And many Orange County agencies "were shifting priorities during this time," he said. Some got rid of their helicopter programs, consolidated services, pulled out of regional narcotics teams or started hiring civilian employees to handle some of duties that police officers used to perform. 

Council members discussed the possibility of adding a dog during a mid-year budget discussion at their Jan. 21 meeting.

Councilman Kelly Boyd suggested the decision should be made when staff prepares the next fiscal year's budget.

Councilwoman Toni Iseman said a trained dog would aid the city's fire-prevention efforts.

"I'm concerned about camping and fires [in the wilderness areas]," Iseman said. "A hiker told me he would not have a problem using a dog to find campsites, because it's scary what he sees in the morning with fires and cigarettes. Could the dog [detect smoke from campfires]?"

A dog's sense of smell can be quite keen, Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Jeff Hallock wrote in an email.

"You can teach a dog to detect almost anything; the fire departments use them as arson dogs to smell accelerants," Hallock said. "I have never heard of a dog detecting smoke, but it could be done, I guess."

Mayor Elizabeth Pearson said, "I think it could uncover a lot of drugs we don't even know about."

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