W-B K-9 Decision Prompts Backlash
WILKES-BARRE — A councilwoman wants to see a “suspended” police dog returned to duty, and an online petition has been started to support that call, while the police union has concerns about training for and related to the city’s K-9 units.
In a post on her Facebook page, Councilwoman Beth Gilbert said police K-9 Chase and his handler, officer Joseph Homza, did nothing wrong in a recent incident in which Chase “accidentally” bit another officer.
The city has two police K-9s — Chase and Skoty. Mayor Tony George recently ordered that Chase be temporarily removed from duty after he bit an officer.
In response to Gilbert’s comments, the mayor said she is “going by hearsay” and “only has half the facts. I got both sides and I’m doing my due diligence.” He said Gilbert never spoke to him, police Chief Marcella Lendacky or city Administrator Ted Wampole about the removal from service.
In another post, Gilbert criticized police management for allegedly not allowing ongoing training for the dog, his handler and other officers, while a national expert says ongoing K-9 training is required by federal courts.
George, meanwhile, disputes that the K-9s were not receiving ongoing training.
On Wednesday, Jill Hudak, a Hanover Twp. resident who helped raise money for the city’s police K-9 program, started an online petition calling for Chase’s return to duty.
The petition, titled “Get Chase back on the street with Officer Homza!” on thepetitionsite.com, received over 140 signatures as of early Monday evening.
The petition states that George “is claiming that it’s not a training issue, it’s an officer issue. If it was an officer issue, Homza should be at home, not Chase.”
George said the statement is false and that he “didn’t blame anybody” in connection with the most recent bite.
Three biting incidents
Gilbert said in her post that Chase was involved in three biting incidents:
• The first bite occurred on Public Square in July “when a male posed immediate threat to Patrolman Homza, requiring substantial force to overcome resistance. The male was charged with resisting arrest and disorderly (conduct). Both charges were held for court at the preliminary hearing.”
• The second bite occurred after a male allegedly “strangled his girlfriend, stole her car, and fled. He was apprehended by the K-9 unit and patrol” and bit the suspect during apprehension.
• The third bite occurred with an incident involving a fleeing felon wanted out of Philadelphia. “Chase tracked an hour-and-a-half-old scent over multiple surfaces and found him hiding under a truck, inside the frame rails. During the process, an officer was accidentally bit,” she wrote.
George noted that the city is being sued in connection with the first bite, and that a city police officer’s “leg was mauled” during the most recent incident last month. He said there were “conflicting stories” on that latter incident.
George said the city is having Chase evaluated by a third party and the incident remains under investigation.
“I’m doing this as a public safety issue,” George said. “I would hate to see a child or an adult being in the wrong spot at the wrong time and having them get hurt.”
Training at issue
Gilbert also raised the issue of ongoing training for the police K-9s.
“Common sense tells you that dogs being used as K-9s need constant training. Let me be clear that this is not the fault of the officer, it is the fault of management,” she said. “Let’s be frank here — a dog has literally been suspended from the force.”
Terry Anderson, president of the National Police Canine Association, said federal courts require ongoing training for police K-9s. He said it’s recommended on a national level that they receive a minimum of 16 hours per month.
Anderson said a lack of ongoing training can lead to “bad responses” or “poor performance on the street. You want the dog biting when he’s supposed to and not biting when he’s not supposed to.”
Sgt. Phil Myers, president of the Wilkes-Barre City Police Benevolent Association, said Homza’s and Chase’s initial training lasted about one month and was completed sometime in October 2016. “Up until recently, the K-9 teams were attending training twice a month (16 hours). Over the past three months or so, the police administration has not permitted K-9 handlers to attend several mandatory training sessions. I believe the lack of participation has prompted the trainer to not renew his contract this year,” Myers said in an email.
George said the trainer, Paul Price, owner of North East Police K-9 Academy in Wilkes-Barre Twp., had been having training sessions over 100 miles away in Lancaster, to which Wilkes-Barre sent its K-9 teams, but Lancaster officials didn’t want to send their K-9 teams here for training.
He said the city discontinued using Price’s services within the past month because of that.
Myers said he believes Wilkes-Barre K-9 handlers have been training one week in Lancaster and one week in Wilkes-Barre since 2007, and that Lancaster officers did come to Luzerne County.
Price said he’s been holding training sessions in Lancaster the first week of each month and in Wilkes-Barre the third week of each month for the last 15 years that he’s been in business.
Price said he holds trainings in Lancaster because of the availability of training resources there such as empty warehouses. He declined further comment.
Myers said union officials agree with George that it needs to determined what may have caused an officer to be bit, “but there seems to be a predetermination that Officer Homza and/or his K-9 have done something wrong in the incident.”
The city has scheduled an independent review of Chase and Homza sometime this week by a third party, he said. However, “the PBA believes there are odd circumstances surrounding the administration’s investigation or review of this matter.”
“Officers have been ordered by the police administration to provide surreptitious ‘paper’ statements off the email server and outside of the police reporting system. This has never been asked of officers before,” Myers said.
Beyond the mandatory training of the K-9 teams, union officials also believe a lack of training for other officers might have played a role in the situation.
“When the K-9s were obtained, the trainer offered to conduct departmental training (for) officers that respond to incidents with the K-9s. To this date, officers have not received any formal training on working with the K-9s,” Myers said.
Myers stressed that the union is not implying that the administration’s alleged refusal to allow the city’s K-9 teams to attend training played a role in an officer being unintentionally bit. “We feel that Officer Homza and Chase acted appropriately,” he said.
“And although training city officers who respond with the K-9 teams may have helped, sometimes, when multiple officers respond to volatile situations (such as the one officer Homza and the other officers responded to), officers are unintentionally or accidentally hurt by their own actions or the actions of other officers,” Myers added.
Myers restated his claim that George’s administration has “blatantly targeted union officials and those who participate in union activities,” and noted that, “coincidentally, officer Homza is a member of the PBA Board of Directors and an arbitration hearing is scheduled later this month surrounding the awarding of the K-9 handler positions in 2016.”
Myers said a grievance was filed after union officials learned that Lendacky “made a ‘miscalculation’ of points resulting in the wrong officer (not Homza) being appointed as a K-9 handler,” he said.
That officer has not been identified.
Union officials have been critical of Lendacky’s leadership and that of Cmdr. Ron Foy for the past two years, and they have claimed that the suspensions of at least five officers and the firing of union vice president Dan Duffy last year are retaliatory “union-busting” measures.
George denies any retaliation.
To address the growing acrimony and curb the filing of police grievances — the city spent over $125,000 on police union arbitration over the past two years — council in November approved a $26,212 contract with the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association to evaluate departmental management and protocols. The 10-week process began in early December.
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