York City top cop: New service dogs about comforting community, not controlling it
It's been 50 years since the York City Police Department stopped using K-9 dogs, and with good reason. The dogs — doing the bidding of their officer handlers — terrorized Black residents and helped foment York's 1968 and 1969 race riots.
"We just weren't supposed to broach that subject anymore," Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow told The York Dispatch. "When I was a kid and involved in York City Police Department culture under my dad (retired Officer Thomas "Mo" Muldrow), it had always been an unwritten rule that there weren't supposed to be any kind of dogs … because of how dogs were used in the past. Or misused."
As of this week, the department once again counts a canine among its ranks, and that number will increase to two dogs in about a year and a half or less, according to city police Lt. Daniel Lentz, who oversees the new K-9 service program.
Victory is a yellow Labrador retriever and certified therapy dog who is partnered with Officer Michael Reinert, the city's downtown officer.
"Frankly, I don't think I could be more excited about anything I've done," the officer said. "I'm acutely aware of the history and am going to work tirelessly to ensure people feel comfortable about what we're doing."
Reinert said he regularly meets people struggling with mental-health issues and homelessness, and many of them aren't comfortable around police officers. He predicted Victory will make people feel more at ease about interacting with him.
'Audacious goal': Muldrow said he too believes Victory will build bridges, and noted that providing a new K-9 narrative — that of police dogs who are loving and gentle —can help heal decades-old wounds in the York community.
"The undertaking appeared to be such a huge thing, such an audacious goal," he said, and one he wouldn't have taken on without the blessing and support of city officials and community advocates, including Jeff Kirkland.
"Being a mental-health professional, I appreciate his idea of rebranding what used to be one of the most antagonistic symbols (in York)," Kirkland said. "I like the idea of addressing issues head-on and being courageous about it.
"I just think it could be another step in helping to improve the (department's) relationship in the community," said Kirkland, who studies, documents and archives York City's history.
"The overwhelming response I received from the Black and brown community … let me know we had to keep pushing," Muldrow said. He called it a pivotal point for York City.
One of the first questions people asked is what breed the new dogs would be, according to the commissioner, because the community has bad memories about the German shepherd K-9s of the past. Muldrow noted it wasn't the fault of the breed, but that people tend to view Labradors as less threatening.
About Victory: Victory was trained by the Leashes of Valor nonprofit organization. Its mission is to provide service dogs to every post-9/11 veteran who needs one, according to its website — specifically veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
But Victory has a minor seizure disorder for which she takes medication, meaning she couldn't be placed with a veteran, Muldrow said, so Leashes of Valor donated her to York City.
She has already spent time interacting with children who have special needs, the commissioner said.
"I didn't need to hear anything else about Victory once I heard she was socialized in special-needs classrooms," said Muldrow, who spent about 12 years as chief of the York City School District Police.
Second service dog: Before York City Police knew about Victory, they had already reached out to Dauphin County-based Susquehanna Service Dogs. York County has several service/therapy dogs from that organization. Read more about them here:
The department will be getting one of SSD's trained service dogs in about 18 months or hopefully less, Lentz said.
An anonymous benefactor will pay the roughly $5,000 for that dog, which will be partnered with Sgt. John Huncher, the lieutenant said. The donor only wants people to know that this is in honor of "Chipper."
The donor will also pay to have two police cruisers properly outfitted for the K-9s, Lentz said.
Huncher told The York Dispatch he wants to be part of this effort to build relationships and heal old wounds. Both he and Reinert are trained in community crisis intervention.
Lt. Michael Meeker supervises Reinert and will act as a backup handler, should that be needed, he said.
Leader Heights Animal Hospital has agreed to provide lifetime veterinarian care and food for both dogs, Lentz said.
York's K-9 history: K-9 dogs were just one way Black residents of York City were tyrannized in the years leading up to the city's first race riot in 1968, according to a report released by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
The report stated that K-9 cops would go to Black neighborhoods, shoot their guns indiscriminately and use police dogs to maul, terrorize and control Black residents.
The mayor at the time, John L. Snyder, responded to 1968's uprising by increasing the city police department's K-9 squad from 10 dogs to 13 dogs.
The following summer, York City exploded in violence that took the life of preacher's daughter Lillie Belle Allen and York City Police Officer Henry Schaad.
Mayor Michael Helfrich said he initially was apprehensive about Muldrow's idea.
"I wanted to make sure we had full community support, particularly from the African-American elders who faced the horrible racism of the mayor who used dogs to intimidate and to harm young people of color in the 1960s," he said. "Knowing and trusting Commissioner Muldrow's heart for his community, I was able to overcome my initial concerns."
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.