On the evening of Oct. 27, in a special council meeting, the White Salmon City Council voted 4-1 to do away with the highly trained patrol dog that has been serving with the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department for the past couple of years.
We disagree with the decision. The German shepherd dog, "Justice," represents a huge investment. After 400 hours of patrol training, and another 200 hours of narcotics training, Justice has been certified by the Washington Criminal Justice training Commission. There is no reasonable justification to boot that investment away.
The dog was donated to the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department, and his extensive initial training was all paid for by a grant, at zero cost to the city. Now, all the city has to do is care for the dog: provide food, medical care when needed, insurance coverage. To date, after about 14 months of duty, the dog has cost the city a paltry $1,600.
We are keenly aware that the city of White Salmon is facing severe budget difficulties, and appreciate that council members are looking for ways to fix the situation. Yet eliminating the dog represents a very minor savings for 2011 -- maybe $2,000.
We also question the way this decision was handled. White Salmon Mayor David Poucher was out of the state and could not be in attendance at the special meeting. With a major decision like this, the city's mayor certainly should have had his voice heard before the vote.
Even more importantly, the council also denied the city of Bingen the simple courtesy of being brought in to the discussion of this issue. Bingen contracts with White Salmon for its police services, and at least deserved a hearing before a decision was finalized.
Council member Anthony Coulter, who ended up casting the lone vote against eliminating the dog, requested that there be a meeting of the two cities' joint Police Committee before voting. But the request was ignored, and the council decided took the vote.
What was the rush? This was clearly not a decision that had to be made immediately -- elimination of the dog will not take effect until Jan. 1, 2011.
Cutting the dog from the budget brings such a tiny savings to the city, it makes us wonder why this was even targeted. To save a couple thousand dollars, a special meeting has to be called? The city's attorney was brought in for the special session, and he makes $150 per hour. The meeting went more than two hours, so that in itself cuts significantly into the council's perceived "savings" from booting the dog.
When the city's swimming pool was in danger of being closed in recent years, the council geared up for a major fundraising campaign to save the pool. Yet in this case, there was no similar creative thinking to consider ways to meet the minimal expenses for the dog. Residents of the area, we believe, would probably be happy to come up with the money to keep the dog in services for 2011. Perhaps the city of Bingen would have agreed to come up with the extra $2,000 to cover the dog's care. Yet the council members seemed impatient to just get rid of the dog, and options were not considered.
There's a much larger consideration to this case -- public safety. After all, that is why we have a police force in the first place, to be there when we need them in emergencies. We believe that if the officers determine that a patrol dog is an asset, the council should trust their judgment and not overrule them -- especially at a time when the force is down to only four officers.
Officer Ben Harvey, Justice's handler, offered the strongest reason for maintaining the K9 program: "There is no way to estimate the true value of these dogs until a dog saves the life of a police officer, or finds a little girl who's lost, or makes a major drug bust," he said.
That certainly rings true as far as we're concerned. You can't put a price tag on what a police dog could provide to this community, but the council doesn't seem to be interested in that; it all comes down to the budget.
Pardon the sarcasm, but we have to wonder what is next -- taking the officers' guns away? After all, it costs money to train on the firing range, and to pay for ammunition, and are guns really needed? And maybe we should have local officers patrol on foot, and get rid of their patrol cars. Think how much money that could save for the city.