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North Huntingdon may add police dog to fight drug problem

Joe Napsha
| Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, 11:06 p.m.
A police dog's vest and badge are spread out on the table along with the funerary urn during a memorial ceremony for North Huntingdon Police Department's K-9 Vegas, who died from natural causes May 3. The ceremony took place at Norwin Senior High School on Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
A police dog's vest and badge are spread out on the table along with the funerary urn during a memorial ceremony for North Huntingdon Police Department's K-9 Vegas, who died from natural causes May 3. The ceremony took place at Norwin Senior High School on Saturday, May 20, 2017.

North Huntingdon could have a third canine to help fight the drug problem in the township after the police department was authorized to begin the process for designating a K-9 officer.

Township commissioners on Wednesday directed Lt. Rod Mahinske, the department's ranking officer, to follow the standard procedures for naming a K-9 officer. Mahinske said he would provide the commissioners with a recommendation for a K-9 officer at its October meeting.

Mahinske, who has led the department since former chief Andrew Lisiecki was fired in September 2016, said he was not aware that Patrolman Justin Wardman offered at a Sept. 14 commissioners meeting to become a K-9 officer. Mahinske said that was a violation of the police department's chain of command and its procedure for naming K-9 officers.

“I knew nothing about this,” Mahinske said.

By following proper procedures, other officers will have a chance to compete for that position, Mahinske said. Wardman and Officer Albert Carson are trained canine officers, Mahinske said.

Wardman said he believed he had followed proper procedure by notifying Sgt. Kari Bauer, the ranking K-9 officer.

Commissioner David Herold attempted to designate Wardman as the township's third K-9 officer, effective Oct. 1, saying the drug problem in the township is “getting worse, instead of better.”

That move touched off a heated debate among commissioners over the proper procedures for naming the K-9 officer, resulting in Herold tabling his motion after Commissioner Darryl Bertani suggested that Mahinske go through the proper procedure and return with a recommendation.

“I didn't think the board of commissioners appointed officers without the chief” being involved, said Commissioner Zach Haigis. “We should do it the right way.”

An attempt to name Wardman the canine officer without input from Mahinske or other superiors, “shows great disrespect” for Mahinske, Commissioner Rich Gray said. The township could wait until a new manager or police chief are hired, Gray noted.

“We're here to set policy. We're not here to run the department,” said Commissioner Duane Kucera, a retired police officer.

The proper procedure for naming a canine officer includes an interview to determine judgment, productivity and suitability to handle a police dog, Kucera said.

Wardman previously told the commissioners the township would be getting a free police dog because he was training a 15-month-old Belgian Malinois obtained at no cost through a kennel in the Poconos.

Wardman, who served nine years as a K-9 officer with the Uniontown and Elizabeth Township police departments, said the township would be getting a dog worth $7,600 and training valued at $5,500.

Although the township would not have to pay for Wardman's dog or the training, Kucera said it would cost $4,200 for a cage and modifications to the vehicle so the dog would get fresh air, as well as an increase insurance premiums.

The K-9 officer's salary would increase by about $11,000 a year because of the extra time needed to take care of the dog, Kucera said.

Wardman said his dog has been certified in detecting marijuana, heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine.

“He crushes narcotics. He would be another force multiplier in tackling this huge epidemic we face,” said Wardman, a township police officer since 2007.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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