Grove City's police dog is helping the force with community outreach

One of the most effective participants in the Grove City Division of Police community-relations effort is able to win over his audience without saying a word.

The department is finding that Max, a police dog that has been in service since July 2015, is as adept at public relations as he is at law enforcement.

Max is being featured in a monthly series of visits to the Grove City Public Library.

The first program was held March 7 with subsequent programs set at 4:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month. The next program is scheduled for April 4.

Max is especially effective in programs involving children, said officer Brian Kitko, Max's handler. Max lives with Kitko and his family.

"Everyone can relate to a dog," Kitko said. "Children respond to a dog and it helps make them respond more easily and naturally to me."

"Many children have dogs at home," police Chief Jeff Pearson said. "Even though Max is not a pet or a plaything, he can be a great icebreaker when we bring him to a community-outreach program. People have a lot of curiosity about Max and how he does his job."

"(Police) K-9s normally draw a lot of attention," Kitko said. "It's good for the police department and our community to have that relationship."

He said he has found Max helps him form a connection with youngsters.

"It's super important for them to understand they can come to us for help," Kitko said. "A program like we're doing at the library is a great opportunity to come out and be informal and help explain what we do."

At the March 7 library event, the children had plenty of questions for Kitko, ranging from Max's age (3 going on 4) to where he sits in the police cruiser (the back seat of Kitko's cruiser has been retrofitted into a cage for Max) to how many days he works (a typical work week is four or five days, with one day set aside for training).

Frequent training exercises are important to make sure Max stays ready to serve, Pearson said.

"He's a highly driven, working-class dog," Kitko said. "He's always ready to work. He wants to work. When we bring him out on a call, he's excited, but he won't know what he's going to do until we give him a command.

"He allows us to go much further into an investigation where before we were limited," Kitko said.

Max and Kitko are typically on duty seven hours a day, four days a week, Pearson said. The hours overlap two shifts and are scheduled during peak times for calls.

The K9 unit can be called in when needed, but Grove City has agreements with other communities with police dogs.

"We'll check first with places like Columbus, Franklin County or Hilliard to see if their K9 units are available before we would call Max out during his off hours," Pearson said.

Since July 2015, Max has been deployed about 430 times and has assisted in the arrest of about 230 suspects, Kitko said.

Many of those arrests have resulted after Max was able to recognize the scent of drugs hidden in a vehicle that a human would not have been able to detect, Pearson said.

Just the sight of Max is a deterrent in many situations, he said.

"People know they can't outrun a police dog," Kitko said. "And they're much likely to try to fight back if Max is there."

Max assisted police in tracking down two suspects March 2 after a robbery at a store on Broadway, Pearson said. He helped police find them in a backyard shed.

"We have a large population of children and seniors in our community, and Max is really good at helping locate missing persons," Kitko said.

While the library program is geared toward children, another new program will offer adults a chance for informal meetings with officers.

Coffee with a Cop, a quarterly program, will be held for the first time from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Thursday, March 16, at Panera Bread in the Shoppes of Grove City, 1786 Stringtown Road.

"These programs will be a chance to people to have a free cup of coffee with and meet our officers and ask any question they might have," Pearson said. "There will be no set agenda."

Many residents don't have the opportunity to meet police officers unless they are involved in an incident, either as victim or suspect, he said.

"Coffee with a Cop will be a way for our community to get to know our officers and for us to get to know them in an informal setting," Pearson said.

Future sessions will be held at different locations in the city, he said.

Coffee with a Cop is a national community policing initiative with a goal of improving relationships between police officers and their communities, Pearson said.