2018-02-23 / Front Page

South Portland PD welcomes new K-9

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Creed, a 1-year old Belgian Malinois has joined the South Portland Police Department, joining K-9 officers Zak and Trigger, both German shepherds. Creed and his handler, Officer Katie Thurlow, will begin a 14- week course at the Maine K-9 Training Academy in Vassalboro, beginning March 5, and are expected to begin their patrols by early summer. A followup course later this fall will train Creed for drug detection. (Courtesy photo) Creed, a 1-year old Belgian Malinois has joined the South Portland Police Department, joining K-9 officers Zak and Trigger, both German shepherds. Creed and his handler, Officer Katie Thurlow, will begin a 14- week course at the Maine K-9 Training Academy in Vassalboro, beginning March 5, and are expected to begin their patrols by early summer. A followup course later this fall will train Creed for drug detection. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — A new K-9 officer has joined the South Portland Police Department, the first in the 35-year history of the program to be paired with a female police officer.

The dog, a 1-year-old Belgian Malinois named Creed, is already living with Officer Katie Thurlow, having been introduced into her home Jan. 16. The focus to date has been on getting Creed socialized and used to riding in a vehicle.

For Thurlow, a four-year veteran of the South Portland Police Department, becoming a K-9 handler was a natural progression. A self-described “dog person,” Thurlow says she has “been training dogs for most of my life – for agility, obedience and as therapy dogs.”

She is also one of only about 100 police officers in Maine certified as a drug recognition expert.

“We are the people called if there is an OUI (operating under the influence) stop, for example, and it turns out to not be alcohol involved, but some other kind of drug instead. A (drug recognition expert) would do an evaluation to help determine what kind of drug that might be,” Thurlow said.

The drug epidemic, even as it existed before the current opioid crisis, is why Thurlow, 29, got into police work to begin with, and why she now hopes to take the next step in her career by becoming a K-9 handler.

“I grew up in upstate New York,” Thurlow said, in a Feb. 13 interview. “It was one of those small towns where everybody knew everybody, where there were more cows than people. But there were a lot of drug issues there, and family issues because of the drug issues.

“I had watched some of my really good friends go through problems because of their parents or other family members being on drugs, and the really painful domestic issues that created,” Thurlow said. “So, I just decided I wanted to do something to try and change that – so no kid would have to go through the kind of things I watched my friends go through.

“Because of my (drug recognition expert) training, I have more drug experience than the regular patrol officer would have. And with that, the next step, logically, would be to get a dog, to help detect those drugs,” Thurlow said.

Thurlow and Creed are scheduled to begin a 14-week Maine K-9 Training Academy course at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro, March 5. Creed will be certified for patrol service, which will include honing his skills in obedience, tracking and suspect apprehension. By early summer, Creed should be seen riding along with Thurlow in a specially converted police cruiser, patrolling the streets of South Portland.

“We would anticipate sending them to a follow-up training program that would dually train and certify them for drug detection as well as their patrol functions,” said South Portland Police Department spokesman, Lt. Frank Clark, in a Feb. 9 email.

It is possible Creed could wash out of the K-9 school. That can happen sometimes, Thurlow said. It should become clear within the first two weeks or so whether Creed has the chops for police work. Such an animal has to be good at more than just drug detection and tracking. It also must willing to bite (but not maul) at the end of a chase, and to know the difference between seeking out a crime suspect and a lost person. Thus, while a Labrador retriever might be good at locating drugs, it’s not the best breed for apprehending criminals.

“A Lab isn’t going to bite at the end of a track, they’re just not,” Thurlow said. “So, that leaves us with Malinois or a shepherd.”

According to Clark, South Portland Police Department has had “some level of canines within our ranks for around 35 years now.” But, to date, Thurlow says, only two have been Malinois, “and one actually didn’t work out.”

“(South Portland Police Department) typically sticks with the shepherds,” Thurlow said. “This will be the first time in quite a while that we’ve tried the Malinois. But, Creed seems to think he’ll be a good fit. He’s already had quite a bit of temperament training.”

Asked about Creed’s personality, Thurlow can’t help but laugh.

“He is definitely a lot more high energy than any dog I’ve ever had,” she said. “You have to watch him every second or else a pillow will ‘explode’ and you won’t know what happened.

“So, it’s definitely been a learning curve for both of us, but it’s going well,” Thurlow said. “He’s loyal. He’s lovable. He likes to play. He likes his ball and tug toys. He just loves everybody. And his energy is a positive. I’m never going to have to worry about him being too tired to go on a track.”

Once certified, Creed will be the third K-9 in the South Portland Police Department ranks, joining German shepherds Zak, handled by Officer Shane Stephenson, and Trigger, who is paired with Officer Kevin Theriault. Creed replaces Saber, who had worked as a South Portland Police Department K-9 from 2011 until his unexpected death last May, just two months short of his scheduled retirement with longtime handler Kevin Webster.

Creed was purchased from North Edge K-9 of Gorham for $5,250.

“We have obtained police canines from various sources over the years, with some being donated,” Clark said. “This is an area in which we tend to get what we pay for. We have, more recently, worked with vendors who specialize in breeding and/or providing working line dogs. Such arrangements also come with guarantees for the health and workability of the dog. Such dogs range in cost, but can easily be $5,000 to $10,000.”

Creed, however, has a pedigree that gives him some promise as a K-9 officer. His father works as a patrol dog for the Boston Police Department, Clark said.

According to Clark, the police department budgets about $4,000 for the care and upkeep of its three K-9s.

“Although that may sound like a sizable amount, it is not when you think about how it needs to cover the equipment, training needs, medical costs and general care, as well as food and other supplies, for three working dogs,” Clark said. “Those expenses leave no room for savings in the account that would allow us a budget for replacement dogs.

Thankfully, Clark said, two “critical” donations came in recently that, “could not have come at a better time.”

“I was recently contacted by Kim Campbell at the South Portland Public Library,” Clark said. “They were aware of K-9 Saber’s passing and let me know that the South Portland Library’s book shop had raised $1,000 to help purchase a replacement dog.”

Also, at its Feb. 6 meeting, the city council accepted a $5,000 donation earmarked to the K-9 program from L. Jon VanWhy, who made the gift in two checks from his two hotel businesses, the DoubleTree by Hilton and the new Tru by Hilton, both located on Maine Mall Road.

“I am very grateful for the work and dedication of city of South Portland’s police department,” VanWhy wrote in the Jan. 11 donation letter. “Although these funds are to be used solely for the K-9 division, please know everyone/officer in your department is greatly appreciated.”

One person at the Feb. 6 council meeting, Broadway resident Ken Bell, suggested councilors should have declined VanWhy’s donation to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest when seen taking money from a hotel operator during the city’s ongoing debate over short-term rental units.

“Does anyone raise a red flag that the Hilton is giving money with short-term rentals being such a hot topic right now,” Bell said. “I just want to put it out there. It does look a little funny. I’m not accusing anyone of anything by any means, but if they had done this six months ago, or six months from now, it might be a little different. But right now it’s a little weird to hear, I’m sorry.”

The council, however, was quick to dismiss any thoughts of collusion or quid pro quo.

“That is a very astute comment,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “I appreciate you bringing it up. I do want you to know that I do not believe there are any strings attached to this donation. I think this is simply a matter of synchronicity. And for the record, this councilor has never been approached by anyone in the hotel business about this subject. I just want to be transparent and clear the air about that.”

The balance of the council deemed the donation appropriate.

“We could not be happier or more humbled by these donations and by the community’s support,” Clark said. “And on that note, I would be remiss if I did not also mention how extremely fortunate we are that the doctors at the South Portland Veterinary Hospital graciously provide routine check-ups for all of our dogs, free of charge. The level of care they provide is laudable, and allows us to continue operating within our current budget line.”

Staff writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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