By Paul Peirce
NORTH HUNTINGDON, Pa. — North Huntingdon police dogs Vegas, Colt and Nero on Thursday showed off new — Kevlar vests designed to save their lives.
The K-9 officers were sporting protective gear provided through a New England foundation and a retired law enforcement officer.
The department's K-9 unit handlers — Sgt. Kari Bauer and officers Bill Sombo and Jeremy Nichols — gathered with their respective German shepherds to thank Vested Interest in K9s, a nonprofit group in East Taunton, Mass., and retired New York City police officer Madeline Hamersley, who lives in Maine.
Bauer prepared the grant application last November. Just days later, a foundation representative and Hamersley, one of its benefactors, both telephoned to report the application was approved for two dogs.
Bauer still chuckled Thursday as she told reporters about Hamersley's reaction upon learning North Huntingdon has three canine officers. "No way I'm going to let that third dog go unprotected," she said.
Hamersley, 83, picked up the cost for another vest.
Sombo said the vests retail in the range of $1,900 to $2,400 but are available through the nonprofit for about $1,000. The vests are designed to protect dogs from bullet wounds and knife injuries.
Western Pennsylvanians witnessed firsthand what a valuable lifesaving tool the vests can be after Pittsburgh police K-9 Rocco, an 8-year-old German shepherd, died Jan. 30, two days after being stabbed in Lawrenceville in the line of duty, Bauer and Sombo noted.
John L. Rush, 21, of Stowe is accused of attacking Rocco with a pocketknife and stabbing police Officer Philip Lerza in the shoulder. Two other officers were wounded in the struggle.
Bauer said that K-9s are usually on the front line, protecting police officers and the public.
"The dogs usually goes in first," she said, so the protective vests give handlers some "peace of mind."
They provide an added "sense of security when entering a situation with that vest on," Sombo said.
A local 4-H club donated vests to the department more than 20 years ago. The newer models are more flexible and lighter -- at 4.5-5 pounds each.
"It only takes about 10 seconds and two clips to put it on should a situation occur. It's similar to his training harness, so Vegas gets all excited and ready to work when we put it on," said Bauer, a police dog handler for 22 years.
Although handlers never would send dogs into a situation deemed too dangerous, Bauer said, they are prepared to make the dogs first responders, and there is the "rare" occasion when suspects act aggressively toward the dog, like one drug-addled criminal she encountered.
"I remember when I first started, I pulled up on five suspects running from a vehicle, and I arrived and yelled out that I had a K-9, and they immediately stopped in their tracks — 10 hands immediately up in the air," she said.
Since Vested Interest was incorporated in 2009, it has donated more than 585 vests across the country, founder Sandy Marcal said.
"We were terribly saddened to hear about the death of Rocco," she said.
"Our telephone has been ringing off the hook ... . I'd say well over 200 calls, and I was out of the office today for just a little while, and came back and there were 50 calls to return," Marcal said. "A lot of the first calls were from police from small departments in Pennsylvania with K-9s who just don't have the funds available to pay for vests."
Hamersley occasionally calls and says she wants to donate money for a K-9 vest and the foundation matches her up with a department in need. "Madeline keeps an active scrapbook of the dogs she outfits in vests. She is wonderful, and her scrapbook includes K-9s from around the country," Marcal said.
Sombo said officers decided to unveil the vests on the eve of Rocco's funeral to spotlight "a worthwhile cause."
"One hundred percent of the donations goes to outfitting K-9s with vests," Marcal said.
Bauer will take Vegas, Sombo and Colt to Rocco's funeral at 11 a.m. Friday in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & 7Museum in Oakland.
Copyright 2014 Tribune-Review
McClatchy-Tribune News Service