Officers stick by their dogs

Staff writers

Two Marion County law enforcement officers have become the latest police personnel caught up in a nationwide trend that, while apparently legal, may involve questionable practices.

Sheriff’s Deputy Travis Wilson of Peabody and Hillsboro officer Brad Richards are in no way accused of wrongdoing.

Rather, they have become beneficiaries — or victims, depending on one’s point of view — of one of a raft of seemingly well-meaning charitable efforts to protect police dogs vulnerable to injury in the line of duty.

The cause of providing Kevlar vests to protect police dogs from gunshots and stabbings may seem laudable. Still, it has given rise to a web of charities, some with dubious practices and most with uncomfortably close ties to businesses that profit from donations.

The situation came to light after a Massachusetts charity, Vested Interest in K9s Inc., offered to provide free vests to the two officers’ new police dogs.

Both officers independently and separately came to the newspaper stating that an absolute condition of receiving the vests was that they arrange to have published, exactly as written, a lengthy news release emphasizing multiple ways to donate to the charity.

“Should be very quick and easy,” Richards said at the time, “because they have specific wording as a requirement. Please be sure that the wording is exactly as stated in the attachment to meet their requirements. I must provide a link to the article to Vested K-9.”

When the newspaper questioned publishing the overly promotional announcement as an unedited news story — a practice that a Better Business Bureau spokesman termed neither common nor standard — both officers were so concerned that they might not get their vests without a story that they offered to purchase advertisements containing the text.

The newspaper responded that it would donate the advertising and publish the two “news releases” as a single free advertisement.

The charity, however, objected.

“The organizer of Vested K-9 told me that Travis and I could not run our ad/articles together,” Richards said, “so can I just run mine now and pay something for it?”

Contacted by the newspaper, the charity’s president, Sandy Marcal, told a different story.

She insisted that her charity did not require the text to be published as-is, only that officers submit it without change to their local newspapers.

She did not comment on why both Richards and Wilson were under the impression that it must be published verbatim or why the two gifts could not be dealt in a single ad or article.

The Better Business Bureau did offer an explanation, however.

“They’re based in Massachusetts, right,” BBB charities expert Sue Crockett said Tuesday. “They’re probably a little long on nerve. Just a little prejudicial comment there.”

Aside from confusion over publicity, the charity, based out of Marcal’s home in East Taunton, Mass., appears legitimate.

“They’re too small and have stayed under the radar at BBB,” Crockett said. “Nothing has jumped off the screen and whacked me across the head about them.”

The charity is federally tax exempt, and its tax return lists no salaries to officers or employees.

Marcal lists her occupation as a professional fundraiser. The group’s website includes profiles of her and other directors listed on the tax form plus profiles of other organizers. One of them, not listed on the tax form, is identified as a “liaison” between the group and the for-profit company that provides the vests it purchases.

Vested Interest in K9s is by no means the only dog-vest charity with close ties to companies that profit from the vests the charities purchase with contributions.

One manufacturer, International Armor Corp., operates an extensive website that not only lists numerous dog-vest charities but also contains detailed instructions on how to start your own charity.

All of the charities presumably then buy their vests from International Armor.

“They’re definitely creating demand for their product,” Crockett said, “and they’re probably getting to write off the effort. But right now I can’t see a problem. As far as I can tell, these are legitimate charities.”

Vested Interest in K9s says it raises money online via the website Groupon.

On its Groupon site, it states that VPI Pet Insurance matches each $10 donation and that for every 101 donations, a vest is purchased.

At that rate, vests cost $2,020. If the matching money purchases an additional vest, the cost is $1,010 — a figure not borne out, however, by the charity’s tax return, which lists “approximately 50” vests purchased for $41,318, or about $832 per vest.

Vest-A-Dog Network, the consortium of charities supported by International Armor Corp., buys its vests from International Armor at $640 for bulletproof vests or $840 for bullet- and stab-proof vests.

Most of the dog-vest charities appear to have been organized by people genuinely interested in protecting dogs.

Susie Jean of Socorro, N.M., said she started Vest ’N’ PDP, one of the Vest-A-Dog groups, after she saw a police dog shot and killed on a reality show. Her two pet German shepherds had died shortly before she saw the show.

With a nation full of pet lovers and many citizens wanting to fully support law enforcement, vest donations are proving quite popular — so much so that some police departments have to chase potential donors away.

The City of Mountain View, Calif., for example, will not accept donations of bulletproof vests for police dogs.

“Our police service dogs do not wear bulletproof vests due to the weight of the vest, added restrictions of movement, and overheating issues for the dog,” the city’s website states.

Richards said that Remo, the Dutch shepherd he works with, will wear a vest only when they are going into high-risk situations or when the dog will likely be the first to reach a person being pursued.

Richards said protecting police dogs is important because of the investment of time and money departments put into them.

The dogs themselves cost thousands of dollars, plus there is time and cost to train them — a total investment some experts have calculated to reach $50,000 over the life of an individual police dog.

Richards doesn’t want to start from square one if a dog is injured or killed.

“We’d like to protect our ‘asset,’ if you will,” he said.

Comprehensive nationwide numbers are not available, but experts say two or three police dogs die annually in the line of duty. One of the most recent deaths was of an FBI dog killed in March during a standoff in Herkimer, N.Y. That dog was wearing a vest at the time.

Over the past several decades, an average of 72 human officers are killed in the line of duty annually.

Richards said that, to date, no dog working in Marion County has even been attacked.

 

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