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Handlers sound alarm on equipment issues amid MPD K-9 death investigation
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MARICOPA — The Maricopa Police Department has concluded its internal investigation into the death of 9-year-old police dog Ike last week, following a months-long examination of the events that led to his death on June 26.

Ike’s handler, Officer Craig Curry, has been with Maricopa Police Department as a patrol officer and K-9 handler for 13 years and is also the president of the Maricopa Fraternal Order of Police. On June 26, he reportedly entered the department for a meeting and left his canine companion in his Ford F-150 with the vehicle running. When he returned to the vehicle, it had turned off, and Ike was overheating.

Though Curry and other officers attempted lifesaving measures and Ike was emergency-transported to a veterinarian, Ike died as a result of prolonged heat exposure. In the months since, Curry’s actions, the vehicle, the department’s policies and the ACEK9 technology used by the department have all been brought under scrutiny.

On Wednesday, the department announced it had completed its internal investigation into Ike’s death and determined Curry violated the following policies:

  • Failure to exercise care or control in the use of MPD equipment, property, materials, forms and facilities.
  • Operating an MPD vehicle in an unsafe manner when such carelessness causes damage to city property, or brings negative attention to MPD.
  • Unsatisfactory performance.

Curry was served with a 20-hour unpaid disciplinary suspension for these infractions.

In a press release, MPD attached a 13-page document that further outlined the circumstances that led to the decision to suspend Curry, including some of the more disputed details of the case that have only come to light with the completion of this investigation.

Two memos from a former K-9 handler and master trainer became central over the course of the case. In 2016, Justin Thornton wrote a letter to Cmdr. Gerald Kaphing requesting upgraded K-9 technology. In it, he didn’t mince words.

“In the last 12 months nearly a dozen Police K-9’s have died as a result of heat related injuries while they are properly designated police vehicles,” Thornton wrote. “This is happening across the country and each time it happens it leaves a black eye on the department involved.”

Along with anti-theft equipment, Thornton requested the purchase of technology that allows for any cellphone to be alerted if the hot car alarm is activated. AceK9 has this technology, called the K-9WatchDog, and MPD requested a quote for two of these devices just two months after the 2016 memo was sent.

The system, valued at $899, is an add-on system that provides unlimited range monitoring through the internet using any smartphone device. It can send texts and phone calls to multiple personnel warning if a dog is in danger.

The department did not move forward with this purchase at that time. In a transcribed interview with investigators, Curry mentioned the memo. While investigators acknowledged they found some sections of the memo concerning, they pointed out that the document was not signed by administrative staff.

However, a 2017 memo submitted by Thornton and obtained by PinalCentral was approved and signed by upper administration, including Chief Steve Stahl, Cmdr. Mike Campbell and a third individual.

In that memo, Thornton again asks for upgraded heat technology and anti-theft devices, and requests the use of funds donated by LGI Homes.

“It has become necessary to upgrade the heat alarms in the police K-9 vehicles,” Thornton wrote. He later added, “The memo requesting the unit has already been approved.”

Campbell wrote on the memo, “Recommend we do this.”

These systems were not purchased. In the documents published by the city this week, the department acknowledges that fact.

“A new K9 Heat Alert System was identified by the Department as needed, authorized, and ultimately funded with no follow through on its purchase,” the document states.

Thornton left the department three months after the 2017 memo to work with the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

“I didn’t even have knowledge of both of those memos,” Curry said in an interview Wednesday. “These are decisions that could have been done that would have directly affected the outcome of the case.”

Further down in the 2016 memo, Thornton also mentions the pagers used by K-9 officers and described them as ineffective in an emergency.

“While the system comes with a ‘pager’ the pager itself is useless and rarely works correctly or at all,” Thornton wrote. “My pager does not even tell me when the alarm is going off. Therefore the pagers are not used or carried by the handlers.”

During the investigation, a representative for ACEK9 found several issues with the pager Curry was using. The pager was found to have been partially unscrewed and disconnected, which would limit the pager’s range to less than 100 feet. The roof antenna for the pager was also missing.

The pager was found in the driver’s-side door of Curry’s vehicle and was set to vibrate, but the batteries inside were dead. When replaced with spare batteries also found inside the vehicle, the representative reported the pager worked as designed.

The conclusion by the AceK9 team was that, if the windows were not down upon Curry’s return to the vehicle, the vehicle malfunctioned. If the vehicle’s windows were down when he returned, the system did activate and operate normally.

In an interview with internal investigators, fellow K-9 handler Officer Jake Gomez told the interviewers he had never received formal training on how to operate the equipment for the K-9 unit and relied on YouTube to “figure it out.”

Later, he told investigators he did not trust the pager system to operate effectively, saying, “I don’t trust this system and I don’t know if this will go through all the walls and lockers.”

After the interview, the investigators tested Gomez’s pager system and confirmed his suspicions: The pager did not effectively transmit the signal into all areas of the building.

“Gomez left his pager in the lieutenant’s office and then went out and set the alarm off while his truck was parked in the back secured parking lot. The pager did not activate,” the report states. “The pager had to be moved to the back of the building before it would receive the alert.”

Gomez told investigators he did not believe Ike’s death was intentional and went on to voice his frustrations at the lack of oversight and supervision with the K-9 program. He also recommended upgrading the system.

Thornton cited similar issues in his memo to the department administration in 2016.

“The current system relies on visual and audible alarms at the vehicle only to notify the handler of a potential heat situation,” Thornton said. “If, for some reason, the handler is not near the vehicle to see or hear the alarm, there is no way for the handler to know the alarm is going off.”

It was these details that Curry felt were extenuating circumstances in this case. So when the department handed down its original recommendation of 40 hours of unpaid suspension, Curry appealed with the merit board.

“I just wanted a fair, transparent investigation to be done into why this happened; it was my only desire,” Curry said. “That’s all I really wanted. I realized that was not the case, they were going to make sure that all the liability landed on me.”

In lieu of a hearing set to take place in February, Curry and the city of Maricopa came to a settlement. In that settlement, both parties agreed that canine handlers are responsible for the welfare of their dogs, that Curry failed to check on Ike “frequently” as directed by the policy in place at that time, and that Curry was not wearing the pager for the installed safety device.

The two parties also acknowledged mitigating information, including the fact that the vehicle was running with the air conditioning on when Curry left, the vehicle suffered unknown catastrophic failure at some point during that time, and the safety device that was installed in Curry’s vehicle at the time of the incident failed to activate as designed.

The documents were signed on Feb. 4, and the internal investigation is now closed.

In Wednesday’s press release, the department acknowledged “procedural contributors” including that the department did not purchase the K-9 heat alert system that was funded and authorized for purchase. MPD also acknowledged the K-9 supervisor was on extended medical leave, which left the K-9 program unsupervised, and internal policies were not consistent within the department, which affected the investigation.

The report also mentioned the need for K-9 kennels inside the department to avoid having to leave the dogs inside police vehicles.

As a result of this investigation, Chief Jim Hughes stated the department would seek ways to improve, including more oversight with quarterly and yearly reviews, accountability measures and monthly vehicle inspections by a K-9 handler supervisor.

“With any incident of this magnitude, as well as in our day-to-day practices, we always look for ways in which we can improve,” explained Hughes. “We have taken a hard look at our policies and procedures, implementing preventive measures to ensure something like this will never occur again.”

Hughes did not immediately respond to comment on whether the department will now be investing in the K9WatchDog technology.

There will be a memorial for Ike later this month, a dog who Curry says was as much family as he was a companion on the force.

“He was a very consistent first dog, my first dog as a K-9 handler,” Curry said. “He loved the community, loved kids. … He was a member of the family. It was definitely a tragic loss.”