Drug-sniffing dog is bone of contention

New Hope mayor won’t allow police to use canine

By: Cynthia Williamson
   NEW HOPE — Some say the borough would be barking up the wrong tree if it allowed Gunner, a dog trained to detect illicit substances, to be used by New Hope Police.
   Others say it would be wrong to muzzle the program now because the borough has an agreement with the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office and the dog’s handler, Cpl. Frank DeLuca, to use the canine.
   Both sides agree it’s a big bone of contention.
   "I’m horrified we are not using this dog as we said we would," Councilman Bert Johnson said. "We can only benefit from the service."
   Resident Paul Witte said a drug dog would be an "important asset to the town."
   Others aren’t so sure-footed about the program.
   "Liability is too potentially high in my opinion," Borough Council President Richard Hirschfield said, "and I will not support it."
   Resident Ellen Balderston said she "wouldn’t trust Frank DeLuca with a drug dog," claiming he made a false arrest against her family.
   While Mr. Hirschfield is content to let the sleeping dog lie, he opened it up to the council for a vote.
   Councilman Robert Gerenser asked the vote be rolled over until next month’s meeting when the entire panel would be present. Councilwomen Geri Delevich and Sandra Trappen were absent from Tuesday night’s session.
   The controversy over the dog dates back to last May when Mayor Laurence Keller suspended the program after Mr. DeLuca accumulated about 40 hours in overtime during the first two weeks of a 10-week training course.
   Though Mr. DeLuca was allowed to complete the training and graduated last June, the program was never instituted because borough officials said they needed to evaluate such issues as cost, liability and necessity before making a decision.
   Expenses associated with having a drug dog in the department — including monthly one-day training sessions — would be paid from the Bucks County drug forfeiture fund. Under the agreement, the dog and its handler also could be used by other area departments.
   Mr. DeLuca maintains he would pay for all other expenses associated with the dog and has arrangements with a veterinarian and a local pet shop to supply free services for the canine.
   But Mr. Keller said there is nothing to prevent Mr. DeLuca or anyone else trained to handle the dog from making future financial claims against the borough.
   "The borough’s special labor counsel has informed me the borough may be responsible for overtime pay for dog care and for veterinarian bills among other things," Mr. Keller said, "which could amount to over $14,000 a year in salary alone."
   Additionally, Mr. Keller said there is a difference between a drug dog and a K-9 police dog.
   "The dog in question does not have obedience, tracking and aggression training, which are normally required to qualify as a canine dog," he said.
   Furthermore, the police union informed the council it would file a grievance if the program is instituted outside of the collective bargaining process.
   "Such a process would involve opening up the entire PBA contract to renegotiation," Mr. Hirschfield said. "We will not do that."
   If police want to bargain for the drug dog when the current contract expires in December 2003, Mr. Hirschfield said, "We will do so."
   Mr. DeLuca already owns three dogs and told the council he never would have purchased the Chesapeake Bay retriever last year for $600 if he had known they were going to renege on the agreement.
   Mr. Keller, who has civilian oversight of the police department, said his decision not to use the dog was "done entirely in the best interests" of the borough.
   The mayor also took offense to assertions he is "soft on drugs" or is denying use of the dog "out of sour grapes."
   Mr. DeLuca said other departments have asked to use the drug-sniffing canine, but he’s had to turn down those requests because he’s not permitted to use the dog.
   Mr. Keller said requests by county detectives or the district attorney’s office should be cleared by himself or the officer in charge of the department.
   "Were that proper protocol followed, a drug dog would only be available to another department after the mayor or officer in charge determined availability, propriety and staffing," he said. "No such request has come to the mayor or officer in charge."