CLINTON — Police Officer Jason Frey was driving on Horse Hill Road when he got an email that would change the course of his career.
“I was literally passing the 95 exit and had to pull over to read it,” Frey said. The email announced that Clinton was adding a K-9 unit to the police force, and they were looking for applicants. It was an opportunity Frey thought he’d never have. “When I interviewed at Clinton I was specifically told that if I’m coming here thinking I’ll be a K-9 unit then to look elsewhere, that’s not what Clinton has to offer,” Frey said.
The town had decided they didn’t need a dog.
“The town told me they didn’t need a dog, didn’t want a dog, they didn’t have money for a dog,” said Chief Vincent DeMaio.
The town had a dog, until the fall of 2016. But the unit apparently had not worked out, and in 2013 the previous dog, Ace, bit a five-year-old girl during a tour of the police station
“We had a canine unit that wasn’t functioning well. There was a lot of animosity in the town aimed at our dog,” DeMaio said. “After the dog bit me I decided I needed an expert to come in to evaluate the program as a whole. We invested a lot of time and money to get that to where it needed to be and then I was forced to make the tough decision to disband the team.”
But for 27 commissioned officers — without a K-9 unit — to police a town of 13,500 year-round residents, 10,000 daily visitors at the Clinton Crossing Mall, and upwards of 40,000 people in the summer, it’s a challenge. Counting the large transient population, that’s well below the national recommended ratio for a police force to have 1 officer on duty for every 1,500 people.
“After the thing went bad it was hard to show what benefit a K-9 unit could have, but I knew what a proper program can bring,” DeMaio said. “The operational capacity the dog gives us as a force multiplier is very beneficial. Sometimes you have to take the unpopular position.”
A K-9 unit can function as the equivalent of three officers in a typical situation, but in a search and rescue it could do the work of 25 officers, DeMaio said. Several of the surrounding towns including Madison, Guilford and Branford also have K-9 units, while smaller neighboring towns may rely on these units for assistance.
“In a big altercation, if only two officers are going — trying to get that whole crowd compliant may lead to use of force,” DeMaio said. “When that dog starts barking, those people start to be compliant.”
A police dog is considered a non-lethal form of force, and the best part about it is that unlike a taser or bullet, a dog can be called back.
Restarting a K-9 program meant that DeMaio and with his 27 officers needed to raise $15,000, enough money to purchase a dog, and to put Frey, who had been selected to be the next handler, through training.
“A vast majority was just local fundraisings. We had a couple different restaurant events, but mostly it was people just putting in some money here and there — $5, $10 and $20 bills,” DeMaio said.
That fundraising was a success, and the town purchased Sonny, a German Shepherd trained as both a Fidelco Guide Dog and a dual-purpose police dog.
“I think the dog has been a wonderful asset to our police force. He’s been able to bridge the gap between the police department and the public,” said First Selectwoman Christine Goupil. “It makes them more accessible and approachable. The police do a lot of work to try to make the public feel as though they are here to help.”
Spending most of his time – about 80 percent during a typical week — creating good public relations was not exactly what Frey had in mind when he took the job.
“When I sat in those interviews, the two master trainers asked ‘do you know what you’re in store for?’ Two or three years later I’ve realized I was totally wrong,” Frey said. The job is 24/7, but there are far fewer drug searches and tracking missions than he originally expected. “If you’d told me I would be a community relation building tool I would have said no to the job, but now I couldn’t enjoy what I do more.”
Together, Frey and Sonny have given countless demonstrations and interviews, even flying out to St. Louis to appear on the cover of Working Dog Magazine. Together they have changed the town’s perception of police dogs.
“We arrest people and they want to know if they can meet Sonny before they leave,” Frey said. “We have parents coming up to us all the time telling me they watched K-9 Sonny videos at bedtime.”