Farmington police propose reinstating canine unit to the force

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Farmington town officials at Tuesday’s meeting, are from left to right: Selectman Stephan Bunker, Selectman Chair Joshua Bell, Town Manager Richard Davis, Town Secretary Linda Grant, Selectman Matthew Smith and Selectman Michael Fogg.

FARMINGTON – Selectmen asked for more time to consider a proposal to add a drug detection dog to the police department.

Police Chief Jack Peck noted that there is almost a heroin overdose every day in Maine and there’s a need to focus the department’s resources toward stemming the flow of illegal drugs coming into the area.

“We recognize there is a drug problem,” he said.

While the department has implemented the Operation Hope program to support those who are drug addicted get the help they need, and patrol officers now carry Narcan nasal spray as an emergency treatment for a suspected opioid overdose, there is more that needs to be done, Peck said.

Trying to stop people from bringing illegal drugs into Farmington in the first place is the main goal now. The problem is, Peck said, “we don’t have the canines here on a regular basis” to help with the investigations. The Maine State Police and Franklin County Sheriff’s Office do have dogs trained to detect illegal drugs, but are often not close enough to the Farmington area to respond quickly enough.

According to a 2015 U.S Supreme Court case, the use of drug-sniffing dogs can be used around the exterior of a vehicle during a routine traffic stop, but the time it takes to perform the sniff test should not unduly extend the length of the traffic stop beyond the initial reason for being pulled over. An officer who has stopped a vehicle in Farmington needs to have a trained dog within five minutes or so of the stop, Officer Michael Lyman said in his proposal to add a drug detection dog to the force.

Additionally, the majority of dogs currently trained to identify heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana can’t differentiate between them, he said. Now that marijuana is legal for recreational use, a dog alerting its handler for the presence of an illegal drug may be identifying marijuana, which would not be grounds for a probable cause search or criminal charge.

As an example, Peck said two weeks ago Sgt. Edward Hastings was tipped off that a man was traveling in Farmington while transporting illegal drugs in his car. At the time, the nearest canine unit was in Phillips.

“We couldn’t get the dog here in time,” he said.

Lyman, who has a five-month-old dog, has volunteered to attend the state’s nine-week canine training class so the department can respond quicker to calls when illegal drugs are suspected.

“Officer Lyman lives here locally; it would be a benefit to the community,” Peck said.

The training class costs $700 and to convert a police cruiser for the dog is estimated to cost another $100. The department’s training fund account could be used to pay those expenses. The next class starts in August.

Should Lyman attend the class, his normal shifts on duty would need to be covered by other officers during the training period. Peck said he can “absorb the costs in overtime” that are within his budget.

The department had a canine unit 16 years ago, but found there were “issues” at the time, he added, and the program was discontinued.

Selectmen questioned the costs associated with having a dog on the force, such as veterinary bills and the possible need for additional insurance coverage. Lyman said he was willing to pay for the veterinary costs.

“My biggest fear is that it becomes expensive at some point in the future,” Selectman Matthew Smith said. “It’s the cost part of it for me.”

“Is it an addition? Yes. Can we absorb it? Yes. I am behind it. We’ve been reactive so far and we want to be proactive. It’s killing people,” Peck said.

Selectmen asked for more information on the possible need for additional insurance should a canine unit join the department. They asked that the program be on a trial basis in which a record of the number of stops the dog is called to, all costs, and other related information be reviewed.

In other police department matters, selectmen gave the green light for the town to accept a forfeiture of items from a drug case that occurred last summer. The items are 20 firearms, and a 2006 Honda Accord. Peck said he plans on using the car for surveillance-type cases and the firearms will be either be kept for use by the department or be destroyed.

Two grant awards were accepted by selectmen. A Maine Bureau of Highway Safety grant totaling $13,143.22 will go towards 64 hours of overtime pay for speed enforcement details, which will be conducted now through September.

A second grant of $1,000 from the Healthy Community Coalition will allow the department to purchase a portable alcohol breath detector and be used for officers’ overtime pay on spot checks for underage alcohol consumption.

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