WATSONTOWN — After hearing words of support for the project by the Northumberland County district attorney, Watsontown borough council on Monday approved the police department to receive the donation of a non-aggressive narcotics-detection canine from the Philadelphia-area Throw Away Dogs Project.
Police Chief Rodney Witherite told council that Watsontown will be the first police department in Pennsylvania to receive a dog from the organization, which trains rescue dogs to become police canines. Since the organization was founded in 2014, it has trained and donated 17 dogs to police departments.
Patrolman Tim Kiefaber will be trained as the dog’s handler and told council he is willing to sign a letter of commitment for any number of years to the Watsontown Police Department.
“When I joined here, I planned to retire here,” said Kiefaber, who has been with the department for three years. “I can do whatever is necessary to make this work.”
During his comments to council, Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Matulewicz said police dogs are generally capable of working for about five years.
He also told council that Kiefaber is a member of the county drug task force. As such, any time he works as a member of the task force is considered overtime beyond the hours he works for Watsontown. As such, his pay for task force work is reimbursed to the borough through a grant the district attorney’s office receives.
As a result, Matulewicz indicated Kiefaber and the dog could be called into service by the task force.
“Watsontown should not bear the burden for the rest of the county,” Matulewicz said. “That’s why the drug task force would cover the overtime.”
If Kiefaber and the dog were to be called on a task force case, Matulewicz said the case would be assigned in advance. For example, they would not be called on a moments notice to search a suspicious vehicle on the opposite end of the county.
It was also stressed during the meeting that the dog’s first responsibility would be to Watsontown. Kiefaber and the canine would not have to take a task force case if it would interfere with their work in the borough.
Matulewicz said the dog would be the only narcotics-detection canine in the county. He said having a good handler is key to having a successful program.
“The handler is the key, and I think you have a great handler here,” he said. “I know who the excellent police officers are, and (Kiefaber) is on that list.”
Former police Chief Dennis Derr, who is now the Milton Police Department’s school resource officer in the Milton Area School District, told council he served on the drug task force for years. He stressed that there is a drug problem in the area.
“As a resident (of Watsontown), I think a K-9 program is good for this community,” Derr said.
As a member of the drug task force, Derr said he was involved in undercover work both locally, and in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York City.
“Those cases were call cases that were drugs coming into our area,” Derr said.
He described the current drug problem in the area as being “very bad” and said it’s well worth the risk to officers who put their lives on the line to go under cover.
“I believe we saved lives because we took the risk” Derr said. “Don’t anybody sit here and fool themselves into thinking we don’t have a drug problem.”
“When you see a dead body there, and a little kid standing there… you don’t ever forget that,” he continued. “I’ve seen that a little too much.”
Council also heard from Dr. Tristan Wilhelm, of Susquehanna Trail Animal Hospital, who pledged to provide all of the canine’s vaccinations and routine veterinary care.
Cindy Crozier and Angie Cooper, of Haven to Home Canine Rescue, told council their organization would support the effort by providing food for the dog, as well as a crate.
With Kiefaber’s training costing around $4,000, as well as insurances and other related fees the borough would incur, Witherite said the budget for the program should be around $8,500.
However, he told council that he recently received a $5,000 donation for the project. In addition, Witherite said Moran Industries has pledged to support the program, and other donations and grant sources will be sought to fully fund the program.
He said drug detection dogs like the one Watsontown is in line to receive generally cost between $7,000 and $12,000.
“It does not get any better than this,” Witherite told council. “I’ve tried to move every single obstacle to make this happen… If this doesn’t work out, you can shut the program down.”
Although the vote in favor of receiving the dog was unanimous, council members Brent Frey and Ken Hollenbach both expressed reservations about the project, with Hollenbach noting that his “yes” vote was with dissent.
While he asked a number of questions related to the cost of the program, Frey expressed his confidence in Kiefaber’s ability as an officer, and noted that he supports efforts to fight drugs in the community.
Council member Harry Hefty and Mayor Russ McClintock both expressed their support for adding the canine to the police force.
“I was concerned about the cost for this year because we don’t have it in the budget,” Hefty said. “I think there are people in the community that will support this. I think the majority of costs will be covered by donations from the community.”
“If we don’t jump on this here, we are wrong, very wrong,” McClintock told council prior to the vote. “Someone has to be first. The chief took the initiative and contacted these people. Watsontown could be first (in the state to receive one of the dogs).”
Witherite said the dog Watsontown will be receiving was selected by the organization for training on Monday. He believes it is either a pit bull or pit bull mix.
He said the dog’s training will take about 90 days. Watsontown must also select an organization for Kiefaber to go through his training as a dog handler. Some of that training will occur in conjunction with the dog’s training.
Witherite said donations to the project can be sent to the Watsontown Police Department, 318 Main St., Watsontown 17777.