WASHINGTON - We are less than a month away from the Fourth of July. For most people, it is a time of celebration. But it also means stepped-up patrols, on-call officers and more specialized teams like K-9 units on duty. It is a security challenge for all law enforcement in D.C., including the Metropolitan Police Department.
However, a veteran detective for the department is exposing safety issues he feels should have been addressed years ago.
Detective Paul Hustler is speaking out, putting his career on the line for the safety and well-being of his partner Reno, a trained police K-9. FOX 5 received a copy of an unfair labor practice complaint filed days ago by the D.C. Police Union against the Metropolitan Police Department for "disregarding the findings and recommendations of the Washington Humane Society as well as violating the labor agreement by unilaterally changing the working conditions of its K-9 handlers and endangering the citizens of the District of Columbia.”
Reno, an 87-pound German shepherd, is considered part of the family for Detective Hustler. Reno is a 10-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department as a patrol K-9.
Hustler and Reno ride into work together from their Frederick County home each and every day in their personal car.
“It’s a Toyota Prius,” said Hustler. “He rides in the back seat.”
Along their more than 30-mile trek into Washington, there is usually a stop or two to make.
“There is always a potential for something to happen because the car has no safety features whatsoever,” Hustler said.
On this day, they stop at the gas station to fill up. As the mercury peaks, the ignition turns off and the windows crack just enough so Reno gets air. But the public is not in danger.
“It’s unfortunate to say, but they are going to get bitten by the dog, and that is one of our main concerns – the safety of the public and these dogs and the officers who transport them back and forth every day,” said Hustler. “It’s a reality that the department seems to want to continue to ignore.”
For more than a decade, Hustler said he drove his K-9 outfitted police cruiser to and from work. But roughly seven years ago, things changed.
“Until 2010 when [former Police] Chief [Cathy] Lanier decided to take the cars from us,” the officer said. “No reason was ever given why our cars were taken from us.”
Since then, Hustler has been fighting to be allowed to drive his K-9 cruiser home.
“It would be something that we would take a look at if they wanted to transfer the dog back to their home, but we would make sure the dog was safe,” said D.C. Police Chief Newsham.
Hustler showed us what a K-9 outfitted police cruiser consist of.
“The [car] door is flat. There is nothing on it, so the dog can’t open the door or put the window down by accident,” he described. “Everything is secured. It’s all a crush-resistant kennel – all the way around.”
He said there is a hot dog system to protect Reno inside the vehicle, which regulates the temperature of the cruiser.
“Lights will flash, the horn will blow, the windows will automatically come down and this fan will automatically turn on,” Hustler said. “All the windows have limousine tint in the back area of the car to keep the UV rays out and keep the back of the kennel cool for the dog.”
In January, the police department singled out five of the 26 total K-9 officers prohibiting them from transporting their dogs to and from work because of mileage restrictions – measuring the distance from their residences to the U.S. Capitol.
"There is not a statute,” said Chief Newsham.
But D.C. Police General Order 301.04 says otherwise along with a department memo from January, which documents all five officers living outside the 25-mile radius – allowed by the department.
In Virginia, Arlington County police told FOX 5 all K-9 officers are allowed to take their K-9 cruisers home for two main reasons:
1. To safely transport K-9s to and from work, veterinarian appointments and training.
2. So K-9s can be rapidly deployed and or called back into service in the event of an emergency or critical incident.
In Maryland, Prince George's County police told FOX 5 their department allows K-9 officers to take their K-9 cruisers home and provides mileage exceptions to these officers because the dogs live at the handler's home.
In the District, the D.C. Fire and EMS Department told FOX 5 their agency has K-9 handlers that live as far as La Plata, Maryland. D.C. Fire and EMS has no mileage restrictions on their K-9 cruisers, allowing handlers to use K-9 outfitted vehicles for the "safety, protection and comfort of both K-9 and handler.”
“If I were to get into an accident on the way to work and become unconscious or unable to move, Reno is trained to go into what we call handler protection mode,” said Hustler.
So much so that a large part of their commute is not only a dangerous affair, but turns into a liability issue.
“Probably the closest call I had with him, he almost bit the little girl that was handing me my coffee out the drive-thru window,” Hustler said. “I felt terrible. I really did and she was very upset about it. I reported it just to make sure the department was aware of it, and unfortunately, it seems to have fallen on dead ears because nothing has been done about it.”
Six months ago, at the behest of the police department, the Washington Humane Society inspected Det. Hustler's personal vehicle. In a two-page letter to D.C. police, the director concluded “the use of personally owned vehicles to transport a working dog/police K-9 is, in my professional opinion, a liability for the District of Columbia. I recommend avoiding the practice of kenneling the dogs and allow department owned dogs to be transported to their Handler's homes in properly equipped department K-9 vehicles.”
But the letter seemed to fall on deaf ears. Reno and Det. Hustler continue to ride in their Prius.
At home, the police department has already been out once this year to inspect Reno's kennel.
“The kennel is required to have a locking mechanism, a dog house, a roof, a water bowl,” said Hustler. “I keep a bed in there for Reno.”
Before the year's end, there will be a second mandatory inspection to ensure the kennel meets all security and sanitary requirements.
“My dog has defecated in my car, my dog has urinated in my car, my dog has vomited in my car, and not to mention all the pet dander and hair that we accumulate in our POVs,” said Hustler. “We are not compensated for cleaning our cars. We are not compensated for maintaining our cars. That all falls on us.”
For Hustler, his worry is not what will happen, but when. He recalls his frustration responding to the Navy Yard mass shooting in 2013.
“I responded from home in my Toyota Prius,” Hustler said. “I went to the Second District first to pick up my police car because traffic was very heavy. Everybody was trying to get out of the city … I wouldn’t have been able to get in there with my Toyota Prius.”
This is a duty Hustler has performed for nearly 30 years at the Metropolitan Police Department – a call for public service with his partner.
“What the department is telling us is that as K-9 handlers and police officers – you don’t care about us, you don’t care about our dogs and you certainly don’t care about the public, and to me that is a huge issue because these dogs should be able to be transported safely to and from work,” said Hustler.
D.C. police sent FOX 5 a statement that says:
“MPD K-9 officers can apply for a take-home vehicle. These requests are evaluated on a case by case basis. If a K-9 officer is not authorized a take home vehicle, they have the option to use the on-site kennel to house their K-9’s overnight, or they may choose to bring their K-9’s home. Those employees who do not have a take-home vehicle and choose to take their K-9 home are provided with appropriate equipment to safely transport their K-9 between their duty station and their residence. We provide these extraordinary accommodations to our K-9 officers to ensure that our K-9s are safe and treated humanely.”