KENNEWICK -- Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg is considering changing the department's K-9 program by adding a drug-sniffing dog to the roster.
The Tri-Cities' first fully certified narcotics dog would help Kennewick police have a greater affect on drug-related violence, Hohenberg said.
The canine program has been around since 1987, and the needs of the force are changing. A dog that could detect narcotics would benefit the entire region, Hohenberg said.
The Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force seized or bought nearly $75 million worth of narcotics between 2008-12. Marijuana and meth made up the bulk.
"What we don't have in the Tri-City area is a drug detection dog," Hohenberg said. "A lot of our criminal gang activity is tied into illegal drugs."
Benton County's one dog handles patrol and narcotics duties, said Sheriff Steve Keane. Pasco's two dogs have some ability to sniff out narcotics, but Pasco police Capt. Jim Raymond said more training is needed. Keane and Raymond said it would help to have a dedicated narcotics dog in the Tri-Cities.
Hohenberg said the reliability of cross-trained dogs is just not the same as a fully certified narcotics dog.
Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim said a narcotics dog could help with the department's work at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco as well as with routine activities.
West Richland Police Chief Brian McElroy said the city doesn't need a tracking or narcotics dog often enough to justify having its own. Adding a narcotics dog in Kennewick would benefit the region.
A narcotics dog can be paid for using seizure funds that federal agencies have returned to Kennewick police, Hohenberg said, including some asset forfeitures from the department's work with the FBI-led Tri-Cities Violent Gang Task Force.
Narcotics dogs are not as expensive as their tracking cousins, Hohenberg said. The dog would cost $2,500, compared to the minimum $10,000 price tag for a tracking dog, not including training. It would cost about $8,000 total to buy a narcotics dog and train it.
Kennewick could partner with the state Department of Corrections or Washington State Patrol to get a narcotics dog, Hohenberg said. A Kennewick police officer would train along with the dog.
Marijuana could be left out of the dog's training now that pot has been legalized in the state, Hohenberg said. It would still be trained to detect cocaine, heroin and meth, among other illegal substances.
The department retired one of its two tracking dogs, Inu, at the end of 2012, on the recommendation of the canine handler and commander. Inu is still with his handler, Officer Kenny Melone. Retiring canines are "sold" to their handlers for $1 and become part of the family.
Inu joined the Kennewick Police Department in 2009, thanks to donations from the Rotary Club of Columbia Center and Kenneth and Opal Kuh of Finley, according to Herald archives.
Moving to one canine team for now allows the department to keep basic patrol squads fully staffed, Hohenberg said, and one tracking dog should be enough for the current need.
Kennewick's two dogs and their handlers responded to 200 calls in 2011. They completed 25 apprehensions and searched 66 buildings, according to the department's 2011 annual report. The 2012 report has not yet been issued.
The timeline for acquiring a narcotics dog will depend on how quickly Kennewick can hire and train new personnel. The city is looking for five police officers -- three new positions created this year and two openings from retirements, Hohenberg said.