By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — As they often do, police responded on a recent evening to disperse the crowds spilling out of downtown bars at closing time.
This time, though, they didn’t have to say a thing before people started to scatter. That’s because Kruger, one of the city’s new police dogs, was already barking from the back seat of the cruiser, excited enough to make the whole car shake.
“They saw the car rocking and took notice,” said Officer Ryan Davis.
The incident was one of several where the “mere presence” of the dogs helped diffuse a potentially dangerous or violent situation, said Capt. Brian Gilligan.
The department’s new dogs — Thor, Turbo and Kruger — began going out on patrols earlier this month, after completing an intensive, 14-week training course with their handlers, Officers Jon Bedard, Tim Salvo and Ryan Davis.
The dogs, all 11/2-year-old German shepherds, were provided to the department by a summer fundraising effort spearheaded by the Mack Park Neighborhood Association.
It’s been three decades since Salem had canines on its police force. Previously, the department would pay to bring in dogs and their handlers from the Essex County Sheriff’s Department for major events, such as Halloween.
Thor, Turbo or Kruger have been called to about 12 incidents in their first three weeks on the job.
Gilligan said he’s seen the dogs “de-escalate” potentially violent situations, reducing risk to both officers and suspects. Officer Robert Phelan agreed, saying the dogs have made “a huge difference in compliance.”
In one incident, a dog tracked scent from the scene of a break-in right to the suspect’s door. “Without the assistance of the dog, we probably wouldn’t have solved that case,” Detective Sgt. Kristian Hanson said.
In another case, an armed suspect who had barricaded himself in a house opened the door willingly, Gilligan said, once officers mentioned they would have to bring in a dog. If that hadn’t happened, police were considering bringing in a SWAT team, Gilligan said.
The dogs have such a heightened sense of smell that they can sniff a door frame to tell if someone’s been through it. This, and their better-than-human hearing, comes in handy when police arrive at a break-in and aren’t sure if suspects are still in the building.
In cases of a missing person or a suspect that has fled from a scene, the dogs can track a person by their footprints.
In the coming months, the department plans to have two of the dogs complete further training to search for narcotics; the third will be trained to search for explosives and firearms.
The rest of the Salem Police Department has also completed a brief training on proper procedures around the dogs, which are not to be treated as pets. Other officers are warned not to pet or sneak up behind the dogs, or even jokingly push or touch a dog’s handler. The dogs are trained to protect their handlers, and they will.
The dogs are with their handlers around the clock, even when off duty. Bedard, Salvo and Davis take the dogs home with them each night. All three volunteered to become K-9 officers, and they get an extra $500-year-stipend to do so.
The city’s new K-9 unit is the result of a community effort. Over the summer, the Mack Park Neighborhood Association collaborated with the city’s Lions Club, Moose Lodge and other groups to raise more than $40,000, selling T-shirts, hosting raffles, dinners and other events. Vest-A-Dog, a nonprofit that provides bulletproof vests for police dogs, also contributed $5,000.
Gilligan said “virtually no police budget money” has been used; everything, from the dogs to the training, was covered by donations. There’s even money set aside for future training costs.
Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.