CHARLESTON — Charleston attorney Scott Segal knows more than most about the needs of K-9 law enforcement officers whose basic healthcare and safety equipment often falls to the budget cutting ax.
"Because of the coal crisis and the economic crisis, K-9 officers in smaller communities and counties don't have vests because those places have fallen in hard times and can't afford vests for these officers," Segal said in a recent interview for The West Virginia Record.
Police dogs can find themselves fiscally slighted because they aren't human, they don't talk and they can't vote. In a world where dogs often are viewed only as service animals, it's very easy to forget they are part of many law enforcement and military teams, their training can cost thousands of dollars and they're often the first to sent into harm's way.
"The K9 officer often is the true first responder," said Segal, the husband of state Supreme Court Justice Robin Jean Davis.. "They're the first ones into the alleys and other crime scenes."
That observation rings true of law enforcement dogs worldwide. During one encounter between French police and a group of suspected terrorists in the Paris suburbs in November, an estimated 5,000 bullets were fired and dozens of grenades thrown. The bodies of the alleged terrorists were so damaged that authorities initially were unable to say how many were killed. In that incident, there was only one law enforcement fatality, a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois police dog named "Diesel" who'd been sent into the apartment check for survivors. Diesel died when one of the suspects in the apartment reportedly detonated a suicide vest.
Statistics about how many police dogs are on duty in the world, the United States or even locally are not readily available. In 2010, Jim Watson, director of the North American Police Work Dog Association, gave a "wild guess" of more than 50,000 police dogs in the U.S.
The Officer Down Memorial Page, which lists information about human police officers who die in the line of duty, also provides information on police dog fatalities. Though ODMP's website indicates its current list is incomplete, the page reports the stories of 141 police dogs who died in in the line of duty the US since 2005. That number includes eight police dogs who have died in the line of duty so far this year, according to the website.
Much of that is not news to Segal, who for years has contributed to the health and well-being of police dogs in southern West Virginia, including the cancer treatment of a Rottweiler named "Merlin" and the dental care of another police dog.
"It's a need I've had an interest in for years," he said.
So when he found out that many police dogs in West Virginia routinely work without bullet proof vests, Segal said it was a no-brainer to take action. He contacted Kanawha County Sheriff John Rutherford, and Paxton Lively, the department's K-9 Handler Supervisor.
"And I asked them how my law firm can be of help," Segal said.
Segal's initial outreach culminated in the successful effort by the Segal Law Firm, the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office and the West Virginia State Police.
Normally, such vests cost about $1,000 each. In this case, thanks to a manufacturer's discount, Segal said his $40,000 donation purchased 48 vests.
The state's police dogs officially received their vests in a recent ceremony in the Charleston Civic Center, with West Virginia officer handlers and dogs present. Segal said he had no doubt the various departments and handlers are grateful for this assistance.
"Law enforcement and the military, they don't take their dogs for granted," he said.
He pointed out police dogs often live with their handlers and become parts of their families.
"They are partners in every sense of the word," Segal said.