PITTSBURGH -- Police dogs and their handlers spend lots of time together -- at home, in training and on the street. They work hard and play hard, and stress is a constant companion. Over time, they develop a complex bond reflecting their unusual relationship as master and pet, partners and family members.
So when K-9 officers unleash their dogs on a suspect, they do not take such action lightly, experts say. They do so, however, knowing that putting a dog in harm's way might save them or others.
On Tuesday, Pittsburgh police Officer Christian A. Sciulli and another officer approached a suspect believed to have a gun. According to a Police Bureau account, the officers told Justin James Jackson to pull his hand from his pocket. Officer Sciulli saw a gun and loosed his K-9 partner, Aulf.
Mr. Jackson fatally shot the 6-year-old German shepherd and was in turn killed by police, the bureau said.
Experts unconnected with the case had mixed opinions about using a police dog to apprehend someone suspected of carrying a gun.
"There are situations where if you think somebody is armed you might want to deploy a dog. Nobody likes to see a dog killed, but in the whole scope of the situation that's one of the highest duties a dog can perform, to lay his life down for another officer, especially his handler," said Russ Hess, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association.
Reading, Pa., police Officer David M. Gabrielli, president of the Pennsylvania Police K-9 Association, was not so sure.
"If you knew the guy had a gun, I would not deploy the dog," he said, though he then conceded he probably would have done so under the same circumstances.
"If you know the guy is armed, I was always trained to not deploy the dog," Officer Gabrielli said. "What you're basically doing is selling the dog out."
Pittsburgh police would not release their policy on the use of police dogs.
However, a departmental policy titled "Continuum of Control" obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shows that K-9s should be deployed just before deadly force is used -- after a Taser, for instance, but before a gun.
Aulf was involved in a fatal police encounter in January 2007. Sgt. Craig Campbell, formerly of the Street Response Unit, shot and killed an armed man, Michael Lee Ghafoor, 22, in Lawrenceville. During the encounter, Mr. Ghafoor was attacked by Aulf but shook him off.
Across the country, there are perhaps 8,000 police dogs, Officer Gabrielli said. However, 37 states do not have laws mandating certification of K-9s or their handlers, according to Mr. Hess. Pennsylvania is among them.
"They can probably go to a dog pound, get a dog, put him in a police car and say that's a police dog," said Mr. Hess, who spent 15 years as a handler in Middletown, Ohio.
That said, Pittsburgh has its own K-9 training academy where it certifies its own dogs and officers as well as those from other jurisdictions. The city has 17 police dogs and handlers, as well as bulletproof vests for the K-9s.
Aulf did not have his vest on, police spokeswoman Diane Richard said.
Police dogs cannot wear the cumbersome vests during their entire shift and often suit up only when performing a task like entering a building rather than while on routine patrol.
Over the years, the status of police dogs has been elevated in the eyes of the law and even within police departments.
In the past, police dogs were considered to be departmental property, like typewriters or radios, Mr. Hess said. Not any longer.
"They fully understand that the injuring of a dog is more than just ... [the] breaking of a piece of equipment," Mr. Hess said. "They're like police officers."
Specialist Gerard Purcell, a Penn Hills police K-9 handler for 25 years and a master trainer, recalled the last dog to die in the line of duty in his department. It was February 1987.
"Back when K-9 Joker was killed, it was still at that time a summary offense, which meant the individual, when apprehended, received a citation," Mr. Purcell said.
Not so today, he noted. Harming or killing police animals is now a felony. Even taunting a police dog is treated with gravity.
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl made clear yesterday he recognized the special status of police dogs.
"I do know that K-9 dogs are seen as officers themselves and need to be treated that way. We understand the distinction, perhaps, in the mind of a civilian, between a dog and an officer, but the reality is that a police dog is, in fact, enforcing the law and making sure that our residents are safe," he said.
Mr. Hess referred to a police dog as a handler's "second guardian angel."
It is, however, an angel that is deemed expendable. Some handlers become reluctant to put their canine partner in danger. "The bottom line, you hate to say it and you hate to see it, the dog is expendable if it means saving the life of another officer or another civilian," Mr. Purcell said.
"If it happens, you hope [the handler] did everything the way it's supposed to be done. I mean, you're talking an incident where an officer has milliseconds to respond by sending a dog into a situation," he said. "I certainly wouldn't second-guess the officer."
Staff writer Rich Lord contributed. Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1962.