The Rome Police Department will disband its K9 Unit at the end of the year because there is no longer a need for marijuana-sniffing dogs, according to Police Chief Kevin C. Beach.
The department is looking to retire Arko and Spock early and send them home with their handlers. Beach said the possibility remains open to reform the unit down the line when they can acquire new dogs.
“We are disbanding the K9 Unit effective Jan. 1,” Chief Beach confirmed on Friday.
“We have been anticipating this as a possibility for the past couple of years. We really had to take a long, hard look at what the main functions of our K9s are.”
Beach said that Arko, a German shepherd, and Spock, a Belgian Malinois, are both trained to sniff out five different types of narcotics, including marijuana. New York State legalized the possession of marijuana earlier this year, and Beach said there are legal liability problems if they continue to use the dogs.
Beach cited a 2019 case before the Colorado Supreme Court that overturned a drug conviction because marijuana was no longer illegal, and therefore the Colorado officers did not have probable cause to use their dog in the first place — regardless of what they did eventually find in the vehicle.
“That’s what a good defense attorney is going to bring up,” Beach remarked.
There has been “a lot of talk” among police agencies over the past several years about marijuana dogs, Beach said. The department looked into whether or not Arko and Spock could be retrained.
“Is there any way to retrain the dogs or desensitize them to marijuana? And the answer was ‘no’,” Beach stated. He said the dogs alert the officers to all types of drugs in the same way, and the dogs could not just turn off the training that recognizes marijuana.
The chief said there has also been a change over the years against using the dogs to help apprehend criminals, especially with the recent bail reform changes in the state. “We’re not going to use that type of force when you’re just going to be giving them a ticket,” Beach said.
The chief said that shutting down the K9 Unit is not being done for budgetary reasons.
“This is not a decision that’s being based on the budget,” Beach stated. “It’s not a popular decision. But it’s is the right decision for the City at this time.”
It will also be up to the City in the future whether or not it reforms the unit, Beach said. Most K9 training organizations around the country have already stopped training police dogs to detect marijuana, he noted, and Rome could bring on one of those dogs.
“We are not against getting a new dog in the future. That is a possibility. We have not ruled that out,” Beach said. But doing so runs into the same problems of any major undertaking: “It’s a time consuming and expensive thing.”
As for Arko and Spock, Beach said the department is looking into sending them home with their handlers. Arko answers to Patrolman Alexzandra S. Carletta, and Spock works with Patrolman Frederick J. Carnevale.
“That’s normal practice for us,” Beach explained. “The first option is for the K9 handler to keep the dog.”
When previous K9s have retired from the force, they have gone home to live with their handlers. But because the dogs are technically City property, Beach said there is some amount of bureaucracy that needs to be dealt with in order to “sell” the dogs to the handlers, usually for about $1.