Martha’s Vineyard gets K-9 drug buster

Poutine, a black Lab like the one pictured here, had some difficult-to-diagnose ailments. — MVT File photo

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting name for the rambunctious black lab at the end of Oak Bluffs police officer Jeff Trudel’s leash than “Buster.” The high energy pooch began formal training this week to learn the fine K-9 art of detecting illegal narcotics.

In eight weeks, if all goes according to plan, Buster will be patrolling Oak Bluffs streets with Officer Trudel. He will also be available to assist other departments with drug investigations on Martha’s Vineyard.

Using money seized in drug investigations, and a long list of generous donations, the Island’s six local police departments and the Dukes County Sheriff voted to establish a police K-9 unit earlier this year. Buster and Officer Trudel will be on call for duty in all towns. Police plan to utilize Buster’s talents in schools, the Dukes County House of Correction, and at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

“This is an asset we would love to have,” Oak Bluffs police chief Erik Blake told selectmen at their September 7 meeting. “It’s the one tool — which is what the dog really is, a tool or an asset — that the Island doesn’t have to enforce drug laws, to track missing children, to track Alzheimer’s patients. We just don’t have that asset.”

Officer Trudel, who already has three other dogs, jumped at the chance to form a K-9 unit.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Mr. Trudel said this week at the Oak Bluffs police department headquarters.

Even before the intensive off-Island training that began this week, Officer Trudel worked with Buster on the basics, reinforcing his natural behaviors with a snack from a pouch on his police belt. The only time Buster eats is when he’s working. He is already learning that the odor of illegal narcotics is very important to his handler, and also guaranteed to get him a snack.

The 10-month-old Labrador retriever is a bundle of precocious energy, until Officer Trudel reaches into that pouch. Then he sits obediently, quiet and alert.

“He knows its time to work,” Officer Trudel said.

Cost questions

Given the financial constraints facing Oak Bluffs, police chief Erik Blake told Officer Trudel and others helping to organize the program that taxpayers could not foot the bill.

“This absolutely has to be a zero sum game,” Chief Blake told selectmen at their September 7 meeting. “This cannot cost one dime to implement.”

Selectmen were skeptical, especially about the irony of establishing a K-9 unit when there is no money in the budget for animal control services.

“You say there are no costs, but there are hidden costs,” selectman Gail Barmakian said at the September 7 meeting. “There’s going to be daily attention paid to this dog. That’s something you’re not going to be doing that you otherwise would be doing. I don’t see how it’s paying off. The drug seizure money that will go to this is obviously being taken away from something else.”

Selectmen eventually voted 4-0, with Ms. Barmakian abstaining, in favor of establishing the K-9 program.

“Looking at it a year down the road, or six months down the road, I think we’d like to review it,” selectman Greg Coogan said. “The worst case scenario is that Officer Trudell winds up with a beautiful dog.”

K-9 costs

Officer Trudel said he tried to think of everything when it came to costs. He was apprehensive about asking for donations, until he started asking.

“Everyone I spoke to figures this is something that is long overdue,” Mr. Trudel said.

Buster himself came as a gift from the Barnstable County Sheriff’s department, and the Plymouth County Sheriff is providing training at no cost. The Edgartown fire department donated a surplus vehicle to be fitted out for Buster. He will be on patrol with Officer Trudel during his regular shift in Oak Bluffs.

Dr. Steven Atwood, of Animal Health Care Associates agreed to donate all routine veterinarian care. Cronig’s Market owner Steve Bernier will donate all the dog food.

“The Island chiefs and sheriff’s department have agreed to enter into a memorandum of understanding,” Chief Blake said. “If Officer Trudel is off duty and is called to their town to work with the K-9, they would cover any expense for that. If Officer Trudel is on duty and is called away from our municipality, they would cover the cost of replacing him for the night, or whatever shift he’s on.”

During the eight weeks the K-9 unit is off-Island for training, a special police officer will cover Officer Trudel’s shift. The special officer’s salary will come from a state program that distributes money seized from drug dealers.

Officer Trudel said he is confident Buster will help the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force make more arrests and seize more money from drug dealers. One previous arrest speaks to that issue.

A matter of time

On the evening of April 12, 2010, members of the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task force sat at state police headquarters counting time. They were waiting for the arrival of a K-9 unit specially trained to detect narcotics.

Several hours earlier, they arrested Richard Morris, then 55, of Oak Bluffs, as he drove off the Steamship Authority ferry in Vineyard Haven.

The arrest was for receiving stolen property. Police had information from confidential informants that Mr. Morris regularly transported heroin back to the Island, according to court records.

They called for a K-9 unit from off-Island. That took time. When the unit arrived about three hours later, the dog alerted near the rear of the truck. Police officers considered that probable cause, the legal threshold they needed to search the vehicle. When they did, they found 50 grams of uncut heroin, according to police reports.

But Mr. Morris, through his attorney J. Drew Segadelli, challenged the search. A judge ruled police had no right to search the truck. He suppressed the evidence. The judge specifically cited the time lapse between the arrest and the search, and said police should have applied for a search warrant.

Mr. Morris was eventually arrested and convicted on other charges, and is currently serving a three- to six-year state prison sentence. But the hours it took to get a K-9 unit to the Island resulted directly in dismissal of the most serious charges against him.

Police cite that example and others to demonstrate the advantage of having a K-9 unit on the Island, ready to respond quickly.