Through Grants, Fundraisers, and Donations, Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit Maintains Its Vital Presence

Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh, center, stands among (from left) Deputy Sheriffs David Barbone, September Spencer, and Matthew Mendenhall, Sgt. Paul Bryant, and Deputy Sheriff Marian Inderelst. Images via the Chester County Sheriff's Office.

By Steve Edgcumbe

When a bomb threat was called in at the old Chester County Courthouse in 2006, county officials responded by clearing the building. After that, however, they had to wait for a bomb squad from Philadelphia to respond to the scene, investigate, and declare the building safe.

County employees were sent home for the day.

That helpless feeling caused Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh to act. She decided that the county needed a quicker response. Shortly thereafter, her office proposed the creation of a K-9 Unit.

While the County Commissioners supported the idea, they said their budget could not support the unit. Through the use of grants, Welsh went ahead and acquired two dogs trained in explosives detection. The K-9 Unit grew from there.

“It’s something we have developed over the years,” Welsh said. “But it took some time.”

Lt. Harry McKinney, accompanied by K-9 Melody, the courthouse comfort dog, discusses the K-9 program with students at Pocopson Elementary School.

In 2010, two additional dogs were purchased using private funds, bringing the unit to four K-9s.

By 2012, the unit began to receive additional funding from three annual fundraisers: a golf tournament already in existence to finance community programs; a Classic Car Show, a free community event with vehicle displays and K-9 demonstrations that receives money from its sponsors; and a “Wild Game” dinner, a popular, ticketed event that features culinary offerings such as alligator and bison.

In recent years, as many of the area’s municipal police departments have phased out their K-9 programs due to budgetary constraints, the Chester County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit has continued to grow in size and scope.

Today, with nine active dogs, it’s one of the largest units of its kind in southeastern Pennsylvania. It serves Chester County’s half-million residents in 73 municipalities – 47 of which have their own law-enforcement departments.

The K-9 Unit provides security to all county government buildings, as well as support and assistance to all law enforcement agencies throughout the county.

Besides the Sheriff’s Office, only three other county agencies – West Chester University, Lincoln University, and North Coventry Township – have a K-9 presence.

The K-9 Unit is not supported by tax dollars beyond the salaries of the deputies who handle the canine officers and insurance costs. At night, the dogs go home with their deputy handlers.

Funding to purchase, train, and care for the active dogs in the K-9 Unit comes from state and federal grants, portions of the three fundraisers, private contributions, and donations-in-kind, expenses that would otherwise cost the county up to $100,000 annually.

In 2016, the Sheriff’s Office organized a K-9 Training Academy, which provides services to other law enforcement agencies in the region. The academy, one of only two in the Philadelphia area, is a source of income for the county, Welsh said. Revenues go into the county general fund, not back to the K-9 Unit, she said.

Last year, the Friends of the Chester County Sheriff’s K-9 Unit, a nonprofit dedicated to raising funds to maintain the K-9 Unit, was formed. Funds raised defray the costs for training, certification, conferences, and competitions for the dogs. Food and veterinary care are both contributions-in-kind.

The K-9 officers are trained in explosives detection, narcotics detection, human tracking and article searches, cadaver recovery, patrol, and arson/accelerant detection.

“Some of our dogs have gotten national attention,” Welsh said. “Our drug dogs and bomb dogs have placed in regional competitions. We are very proud of the accomplishments of the teams – the deputies and the K-9 officers – but also proud of the fact that our dogs place very high or get the top awards in regional and national competitions.”

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