(ORANGE COUNTY, Calif.) -- The Orange County Sheriff's Department on Wednesday joined the growing ranks of law enforcement agencies to outfit their dogs with bulletproof vests.
"The dogs you see out here are part of our family. We love them," said Sheriff Mike Carona. "We appreciate the job they do for us on a day-to-day basis. We're protecting our dogs because they're the first ones in the door."
The Elks Lodge donated the $3,200 needed to buy the six fatigue-green flak vests for the sheriff's K-9 unit. The vests run from collar to tail to protect most of the vital organs, and they fasten under the belly with Velcro straps.
The Los Angeles Police Department already has the vests for its dogs, Officer Don Cox said, many donated through the "Vest-a-Dog" program. In fact, today, fourth-grade students from Raymond Soboro's class at St. Thomas Elementary School will present one purchased with money they raised.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, however, decided years ago against using the vests.
"They are restrictive on the dogs in how they move," said Sgt. Bill Thompson, K-9 supervisor. "We've tested the vests in the past by putting them on the dogs. It slows them down."
However, he said, "we haven't ruled out anything. These days, material is getting lighter and more flexible. . . . Anything is possible in the future. Funding is always an issue."
Each vest costs about $500. Orange County officials said that is a small price to pay, considering that each police dog costs about $8,000, plus an additional $20,000 to train.
Law enforcement officials across the nation are moving to better protect police dogs.
The Federal Law Enforcement Animal Protection Act, signed into law in August, increased the punishment for anyone who harms a police dog. It calls for a one-year prison sentence for injuring a dog and a 10-year sentence for killing one. Earlier, federal law required only a fine.
Police departments across the nation are increasing their canine corps, which sniff for drugs and explosives, chase suspects, search for children and help control crowds.
Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Dan Downey said he worried about the safety of Bach, his German shepherd, with every search.
"When you know the suspect's got a gun and you send in the dog, you don't know if the suspect has something there waiting for the dog," Downey said. "Now, right before we go in somewhere to search, the vest is the last piece of equipment I put on him."
(iSyndicate; Los Angeles Times; Nov. 16, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.