New Albany News

Dogs gone from police department

November incident prompted city to return last canine to training agency

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The New Albany Police Department suspended its K-9 program in January after a biting incident late last year.

According to records recently provided by the city, the department's K-9 handler, Officer Joel Strahler, was on patrol On Nov. 30 with his police dog, Fanto, when a 21-year-old Columbus resident flagged him down at about 9:40 p.m. at a gas station in the first block of East Dublin-Granville Road.

The man ran to the front driver's side window of Strahler's cruiser and told Strahler he was lost and his phone was not working, the report said.

The man's approach caused Fanto to begin barking, prompting, "Strahler to close the divider screen between the front passenger compartments and the rear passenger compartments," according to the report.

The report said Strahler could not hear the specific questions the man asked because of Fanto's barking, so he got out of the cruiser.

However, Fanto also was able to exit the vehicle "behind Officer Strahler's legs," according to the report. Neither the report nor city spokesman Scott McAfee provided an explanation for how the dog was able to get out of the rear passenger compartments if the divider screen was closed.

Once outside the cruiser, Fanto bit and held the man by his right hand. Strahler ordered Fanto to release the man and he put the dog back in the vehicle, according to the report.

Strahler called for an ambulance, but once the responding medics treated the victim at the scene, he refused transport to a hospital, the report said.

The victim later was contacted by the department and said he was treated at Mount Carmel St. Ann's hospital in Westerville. He "received approximately 12 stitches and was diagnosed with possible nerve damage," the report said.

"We encouraged the bite victim to contact us regarding reimbursement for medical expenses," McAfee said. "We also reached out to our insurance provider to work with him directly if he was more comfortable with this approach.

"I don't have a cost estimate for medical bills."

McAfee said the city has not heard back from the victim.

The victim has not filed a lawsuit against the city, McAfee said. He would have one year to file.

City officials still decided to suspend the K-9 program indefinitely, McAfee said.

"We started the K-9 program to be less reliant on other agencies for K-9 assistance for tracking, apprehension and drug searches," McAfee said. "We also expected community outreach benefits. Our first police dog was wonderful in all of these areas but he was killed in action early on in his career. Our second dog was an effective drug dog but did not serve other roles effectively.

"For our organization, we need an animal to serve multiple functions. We still believe in the merits of K-9 programs, but weighing all factors and based upon our personal experiences with our two dogs, we decided to suspend the program indefinitely."

Fanto was returned to his trainer -- Azzi International Service for Dogs -- in January, when the program was suspended, interim Police Chief Greg Jones said.

The dog originally cost $7,500.

"There was no cost to return Fanto nor did the city receive a refund," McAfee said. "The dog handler we purchased Fanto from offered an exchange for another dog but we instead chose to suspend the program."

City officials said they have no current plans to revive it.

"It's not something that we're planning in the near future, though we've not ruled it out," Jones said.

New Albany has had two police dogs since 2010.

The first, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois named Bungee, started work in October 2010. He was purchased with $7,500 in grants from the New Albany Community Foundation and The Limited Foundation.

Bungee was killed May 2011 when the automatic door installed on Strahler's vehicle opened unexpectedly and the dog leapt into traffic on U.S. Route 62.

Fanto, a 3-year-old German shepherd, was purchased for $7,500 with insurance money received after Bungee's accident. He went to work with Strahler, who had trained and worked with Bungee, in September 2011.

Strahler said the automatic door opener that malfunctioned would not be used with Fanto.

Bungee was used in drug searches and also as part of the department's community outreach. He completed 57 searches and four drug sweeps of schools. He assisted other area police departments in four searches and was part of 23 cases where charges were filed.

Fanto worked well in drug-related cases, too, including 112 searches, but did not function well at community events, McAfee said.

Jones said Fanto was not used for community outreach activities.

"I think we learned that each dog is different," McAfee said.

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