CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - When a police force makes the decision to take on a K-9 unit, what it's doing, in reality, is committing to a weapon that requires much more than routine maintenance and an occasional oil change.
The Chatham County Sheriff's Office K-9s are full-fledged officers for the force, family members to their handlers, and a potential liability for the entire department.
Tuesday, the CCSO K-9 officers each got a piece of equipment that demonstrates that our commitment to them is serious.
They've been on the wish list for years - and out of the budget for even longer. What's now considered the most basic element of a police uniform is still privileged protection for some officers, which may be why the non-profit "Vested Interest in K-9s" has donated 2,600 bulletproof vests to four-legged officers across the country. Chatham County is its newest recipient. All nine drug and bomb-sniffing officers are blessed with a better chance of surviving that is built around constant danger.
"We wear our vests every day and we know we're going home knowing our vests saved us, could have saved us, will save us. Same thing with our dogs, because they were going in there bare because you just never know what's going to happen or what's around the corner," said Sgt. Jason Livie, CCSO. "We'll be going into those same search warrants the SWAT teams go in and we just never know if there's going to be somebody that's going to be around a corner or something."
Sgt. Jason Livie has been with Kyra for more than four years. Until now, he could only hope the surprise around the corner didn't cost Kyra her life. Deputy Steven Davis also must push his Belgian Malinois, Xena, to the limits.
"A lot of people think that it's just 'grab a dog and go,' but it takes a lot of resources and luckily we have a sheriff who understands that and he's really good and he provides us with all the stuff that we need," said Deputy Davis, CCSO.
Having these brand new vests is a game changer when it comes to the protection of the dogs, but having a K-9 unit like CCSO has is a massive commitment, and it's all about protecting the animals. These days, heat kills more police K-9s than bullets...K-9 officers accidentally left in hot patrol cars. Of the 14 K-9s killed so far this year, five have died from gunfire in the line of duty; six died in hot cars.
In Chatham County, that kind of mistake is unlikely, thanks to another commitment to safety in every K-9 cruiser.
"I didn't touch anything right. The windows rolled down, the fan starts running, it starts circulating air through here, and even my siren starts coming off. So, even if I'm not around, people will start saying, 'why is this cop car siren going off,' and notify somebody," said Deputy Davis.
Between food, veterinary care, training, specialized equipment, kennels, and vehicles, a K-9 commitment is about protecting an officer capable of doing things to protect your family like no human officer can.
"Our goal every day is to go home to our families just as much as our dogs are going home to our families," said Sgt. Livie.
Each K-9 vest costs about $2,000. They weigh around four pounds, and according to the handlers, the K-9 officers become accustomed to wearing the vest within hours of having them fitted. Also, unlike many departments, the sheriff mandates that any K-9 handler who is leaving his or her cruiser for more than 15 minutes must take their dog with them. It really is all about protecting the animal.
"Vested Interest in K9s" may sound familiar to you. That's because in May, they donated to Effingham County Sheriff's Office. K-9s Arest and Gero both received bullet and stab protective vests. They're needed while on patrol, especially when they are taking part in high-risk operations. Last year, the operation outfitted Garden City K-9 Arie with a vest as well.
For more information on 'Vested Interest,' click here.