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Retired K-9 officers could receive benefits, lawmakers say

By Michael Wetzel

For the Enquirer

Just the sight of the former Morgan County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Havoc, a robust German shepherd, helped lead to arrests.

“One time, there were two suspects who said they were going to run — until they saw Havoc and they surrendered,” retired Morgan County Deputy Frank Anderson recalled. “They said they were not going to get bit.”

A medical condition with 8-year-old Havoc’s hips ended his service with the Sheriff’s Office last month and he was adopted by Anderson, his handler during portions of 2020-21. Under the adoption agreement, Anderson has to buy all of Havoc’s food and pay for medical costs, but two local lawmakers say a bill to make state money available for retired K-9s’ veterinary care could be introduced in the Legislature next year.

State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said a law similar to the one that went into effect in Florida in June “is certainly possible” in Alabama.

“If law enforcement groups really got behind it and supported it and the need for it along with animal rights groups, it is something we could see pass in the (2023) session,” Orr said.

Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, who represents portions of Lawrence County, said he is open to introducing a bill to address the issue.

“It is important that K-9s have helped us to protect our lives and our families, the people who do the right things,” Gudger said. “Dogs are man’s best friend, and it is only fair to take care of them for the rest of their lives like they took care of us when we needed them the most.”

Local canine advocate Tom Fredricks, who has run three times for a state House seat, said he’s surprised Alabama doesn’t already have a law on its books providing benefits for retired law enforcement dogs. He said a bill supporting this would “pass with flying colors.”

“We’re trying to get some attention to the need of this,” said Fredricks, president of Fredricks Outdoor in Priceville. “Everybody who knows me knows we have plenty of dogs at my place. They are treated like royalty, and I’d like to see every dog that serves the state of Alabama treated accordingly. I hope they could push (a bill) through this year. It is a feel-good bill. I don’t know anybody who would have opposition to spend that economical amount of state resources to take care of the dogs as well as these dogs have.”

Florida is believed to be the first state to pay benefits to care for retired law enforcement dogs. In June, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law that reimburses up to $1,500 per year in veterinary care costs incurred by the handlers or owners of the retired dogs.

Florida has allocated $300,000 annually to pick up those costs.

Orr said 14-year-old Emma Stanford of Palm Coast, Florida, who pushed for the Florida legislation, appears to have found an overlooked need.

“It will probably have a rippling effect across the country,” he said. “Young people can influence not just the state but the entire country. …

“I think at best it would have to originate with law enforcement (in Alabama) through their representatives to the Legislature. Sheriffs, maybe police chiefs, ALEA. It needs to come from law enforcement approaching their

legislators about the needs that they have to take care of these service dogs in their twilight.”

Sheriff’s spokesman Mike Swafford said Friday his department has spent $6,988 on veterinary care and food for the county’s K-9 officers, which included Havoc until this month, this fiscal year.

Arthritic hips

Trained as a tracking, drug and bite dog, Havoc’s last handler, Cole Kelley, said he noticed something awry with the black-and-brown German shepherd when he became Havoc’s handler in April.

Tests showed Havoc’s hips “riddled with arthritis” and the dog was forced into an early retirement, according to Swafford.

He said the dog’s retirement leaves the Sheriff’s Office with three K-9 officers, Emma, Gator and Peluchi. He said the dogs work on patrols, school searches and drugs.

Havoc worked under four handlers in his seven years in the department: Josh Gentry, Anderson, Celeste Sharbutt and Kelley.

Anderson, 42, said he was saddened to hear that Havoc was having hip issues, but excited to adopt the dog.

He said after Gentry left the department, “I showed interest. Being a K-9 officer handler is something I wanted to do my whole life. It was a 100% life-changer.” That was in May 2020. Anderson retired 15 months later in August 2021, and then Sharbutt took Havoc’s leash.

“When I first got him, the challenge was not to get bit and building a bond between us,” Anderson said. “He loves to play with his Kong (a rubber toy). I did everything with him. I carried him everywhere, to the lake, to Birmingham to visit my family. Everywhere I went, he went.”

Bonding process

Anderson’s supervisor at the time, Sgt. Shannon Ferguson, said Anderson helped Havoc improve his demeanor.

“There was an instant bond when Frank got him. He got Havoc manageable. Before he got Havoc, you didn’t want to be around (Havoc) so much. He didn’t know how to act at times,” Ferguson said. “When Frank worked with him, Havoc would mind his own business. We got comfortable with him. There was always that switch when it was working time when he knew it was time to go.

“The dog worked so much harder with Frank. Frank only had to call him one time and he listened. Havoc apprehended more people, did better on searches and located a lot of narcotics with Frank.”

Anderson said he received “love bites” on his arm, hand and buttocks during the initial bonding process with Havoc.

Chief Deputy Alan Host said he remembers Havoc successfully tracking a suspect about three-quarters of a mile after the suspect ditched his car off New Center Road in the southern part of the county about five or six years ago.

“We were working night shift,” Host said. “I was extremely impressed with Havoc.”

Anderson said there were several times when Havoc played key roles in seizures of significant amounts of drugs and cash.

“Cash is a main item in the drug trade. If you have drugs on your hands and you touch the cash, the drug odor is on that money,” he said.

Anderson said suspects didn’t want to test Havoc’s abilities.

“I never got an actual bite apprehension with Havoc,” he said. “But there were multiple times Havoc was utilized in the area and when the suspect saw Havoc, he gave up.”

Condition diagnosed

Kelley, 29, of Eva, said his experience as a dog handler of 11 years helped him spot Havoc’s hip condition.

“I noticed his hip problems early on,” said Kelley, who has worked as a handler including stints in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, and as a law enforcement officer with Redstone Arsenal and Cullman Police Department. “I noticed some stuff going on with Havoc. We got some X-rays done and figured out how significant everything was. Our time together got cut short, but our time together was good.”

Kelley took over Havoc three months ago after Sharbutt left the department and said the dog was productive on multiple drug seizures during the short time with him.

“Havoc got some fentanyl about two weeks ago,” Kelley said last week about an arrest in Hartselle. “We deployed Havoc on a traffic stop. He did a free air sniff of the vehicle and gave a positive alert on the vehicle. He found fentanyl and drug paraphernalia. I guess that was a good one to end on. This dog knows his job.”

Training was a regular routine that Anderson and Havoc won’t be doing together any longer. After initial training in Little Rock, Arkansas, the two officers traveled to Madison every Wednesday for eight hours of training to help Havoc stay sharp. “When I was working, we trained every morning for an hour at the house,” Anderson said.

Ferguson said the County Commission decommissioned Havoc in early July and that opened the door for Anderson to adopt.

“I’m glad to have Havoc back,” Anderson said. “He’ll spend the rest of his life with me fishing and swimming at the lake and cruising around dog parks. He knows my place and he will take off and get in the water. He’ll be a dog doing what dogs do. I’ve got 2½ acres so he’ll have plenty of room to hang out. It won’t take him long to realize he’s retired now.”