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Future of Penn Township police-dog program is uncertain

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 9:02 p.m.
In this undated file photo, Penn Township police officer Ross Piraino poses with his police dog, Charo. The township settled a lawsuit with Piraino this month for overtime pay to care for the dog while at home. Lillian DeDomenic | for the Penn-Trafford Star

Though Penn Township has settled a federal lawsuit involving its former police-dog unit, officials haven't committed to continuing the program with a new dog.

Commissioners voted unanimously last week to approve a settlement with officer Ross Piraino, who sued to receive overtime pay for the at-home care of his now-retired police dog while it was in service.

Commissioners signed off on a $5,000 payment. Of that, $1,666 goes to the officer before standard employment taxes are taken out. Piraino's attorney received $3,334.

“I know the township doesn't like to pay out funds, but when you look at the cost of litigation, etc., it's really not worth it,” Solicitor Les Mlakar said. “It's a reasonable settlement for the township.”

The township is paying the settlement from the police wages fund, manager Bruce Light said. Records show the township paid its consulting attorney, Bernie Matthews, $16,841 to work on legal matters involving the case, according to Finance Director Linda Iams.

All told, Piraino's $1,666 pretax payday cost the township $21,841.

The settlement came almost one year to the day after police Chief John Otto took Piraino's dog out of service because of some issues with aggressive and inappropriate responses to commands. The dog was a part of the police force for three years.

Despite the lawsuit, commissioners included $4,500 in the 2013 police budget for a police-dog program. However, they sold the former vehicle for Piraino's dog unit, a 2004 Chevrolet Impala, last week for $818.

Commissioners said they haven't decided whether to get another dog. Commissioner Jeff Shula said he is confident the commissioners will make an effort to restart the dog program after modifying policies to avoid the potential of future litigation, but his colleague, Chuck Horvat, said the program isn't a priority.

“At this point in time, my position is that it's in limbo right now,” said Horvat, the board president.

Another commissioner, Larry Harrison, said some commissioners are on the fence about the program.

“Personally, I think there may be some advantages to having a unit, just based on the productivity when it gets into drug-related issues or potential offenses, and I think, frankly, a dog is a little easier and a heck of a lot cheaper to maintain and support than another patrolman,” Harrison said. “I have not totally decided on my position, but I tend to lean towards having a K-9 unit should that come up for a full discussion and possible implementation.”

Otto, a former dog handler himself, said the commissioners have supported a dog program since 1993. He said the department has put its dogs to good use, and he knows the commissioners recognize the value of a dog.

“I was encouraged by the fact that the board kept my K-9 line item in the 2013 budget, but the reality is that when a federal lawsuit is filed against you, it stings,” Otto said. “It may take a while for that pain to go away in order for the board to look at the big picture and evaluate whether or not we will obtain another K-9.

“It just may depend upon whether or not the board feels that we can settle our differences some place other that federal court.”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or cforeman@tribweb.com.

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