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Elma lays off K-9 dog Riggs

Elma Police Chief Jeff Troumbley says he’s discontinuing the police department’s K-9 program, effectively laying off K-9 dog Riggs, who first joined the force in March of 2010.

Unlike most other K-9 dogs in the county, Riggs exclusively uses his snout to sniff out drugs. He’s not an apprehension dog, Troumbley said. And with marijuana now legal in Washington state, it creates a complex, new set of problems.

“He can’t tell the difference between marijuana and other drugs,” Troumbley said. “That’s just not how he was trained.”

It’s not like he barks when he smells marijuana and sits when he smells heroin, the chief points out. It’s the same behavior for any kind of drug. And the city then faces liability challenges of searching someone’s vehicle or house to find marijuana, which is now legal under state law.

Riggs, a purebred German shepherd, is about 6 years old and has been partnered with Elma Police Officer Josh Wheeler since the dog was two years old. The city received Riggs with the use of a $10,000 federal grant.

In a Dec. 2 memo to the mayor and the Elma City Council, Troumbley details the use of Riggs. The data discovered by Troumbley finds that, lately, the dog hasn’t sniffed out much marijuana, with most drug stops related to meth and heroin.

In 2010, the dog was deployed 17 times with a majority of drug/paraphernalia discovered related to marijuana. In 2011, there were 16 logged incidents, with most of the drugs found related to heroin and heroin paraphernalia. In 2012, there were eight logged deployments related mainly to meth and heroin. And in the past year there were just three logged deployments, mainly because the department was without a vehicle for four months after a collision.

“During the past four years, the narcotic detection team has assisted all the schools in our school district in school searches,” Troumbley adds in his memo. “They also have conducted searches in the Montesano School District and Oakville School District. The team also has conducted demos at all of the schools in the Elma School District, co-op schools and pre-schools.”

Troumbley said adding to his decision to lay off the dog is that earlier this year during union negotiations with Elma Police officers, “we discovered our annual costs were going to double due to an error in our memorandum of understanding.” Budget numbers show that the costs would go from $5,000 per year to about $13,000 in 2014 for a dog that could be a liability in using because of the new marijuana laws.

“This is just a really sad decision for us,” Mayor Dave Osgood said on Dec. 20. “We’ve gotten a lot of good use out of Riggs, but I’m glad he’ll be able to be with Officer Wheeler.”

Troumbley says that it would still be legal to use the dog in schools or when facing residents under the age of 21, but he can’t justify the cost of such a limited use.

“The passing of I-502 last year changed the criminality of marijuana,” Troumbley said. “This changed our approach to the use of the Narcotics Detection Team. Therefore, with the use of our team as primarily a public relations tool and costs doubling, I find I cannot justify our continuing with the narcotic detection team.”

City Council members still remember the demonstration Riggs did in 2010 in the council chambers when his handler hid a drug sample — 0.1 gram of meth wrapped in plastic and placed inside a “tic tac” mint box — in the council chambers and saw Riggs sniff it out.

“The expenses are going up and it’s understandable that we need to discontinue the program,” Councilman Jim Taylor said.

As it happens, this is the second time Riggs has been laid off. Before ever coming to Elma, Riggs was trained as a tracking dog through the Patrol School in Oregon and worked for a couple of months with the Hillsboro (Ore.) Police Department. But when that department could not keep its K-9 program, because of budget and other issues, the dog was donated to the Washington State Department of Corrections, where he was trained as a drug dog. From there, Riggs found his way to Elma.

Troumbley says that the city’s Narcotics Detection Canine Team will be discontinued on Dec. 31. The city will essentially sign the dog over to Wheeler.

Sheriff Rick Scott says that while Elma may be discontinuing its program, the county still sees use for its K-9 drug dog, which works with the county’s drug taskforce. The county also has an apprehension dog.

Scott says the county pays a combined $6,000 per year for both dogs, plus vet bills.

“It’s a great value for us,” he said. “Yes, there are new challenges with the approval of the initiative, but there are options we have short of discontinuing the program.”

Scott says that the dog alone is no longer being used to get search warrants. Instead, if the dog smells drugs and gives an alert and the officer checks the criminal history of someone driving a car and that person has an arrest record for heroin or meth, that could be enough to get a warrant.

And, the sheriff points out, certain amounts of marijuana possession is still illegal.

“The fact that marijuana has been legalized hasn’t eliminated that particular tool by law enforcement,” Scott said.

Troumbley and Scott say that many other departments around the state have discontinued their own drug-sniffing dogs because of the new laws. However, new dogs are actually being trained to avoid detecting marijuana and some departments have chosen to re-train their existing dogs.

The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission removed marijuana from its Canine Performance Standards test in January. And the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys issued a memo earlier this year warning police agencies not to depend just on a drug dog’s nose before getting a warrant. They’d need some other kind of evidence.

KOMO reports that some dogs around the state are being re-trained. In Bellevue, the department spent two months training the dogs specifically not to alert for marijuana. The Seattle Police Department also spent time and money to re-train some of their dogs.

The Kitsap Sun reports that the Bremerton Police Department brought on its first dog, a black labrador, specifically trained not to smell marijuana back in April.

Scott says that it may make sense for new dogs not to be trained, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary for the county to re-train its dog.

“We haven’t taken that step because we get quite a bit of use from our dog supporting functions of the drug taskforce,” Scott said.

Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins told The Kitsap Sun that his agency won’t be training future narcotics-detection dogs to find pot.

“It’s problematic because the dogs could alert on a legal amount of marijuana,” Calkins said. “And then we’re violating someone’s privacy.”

He said there’s also a concern that if a dog were to find a valuable piece of evidence because his sniffer encountered a legal amount of pot, all the evidence might be thrown out in court. For example, Calkins said, if a dog sniffs out a legal amount of marijuana and a gun used in a murder is found with it, a judge might rule that the gun isn’t admissible in court.