Police dog’s nose for pot no longer needed in Lakewood

LAKEWOOD — A Lakewood police dog was handed his pink slip this week after police officials determined his biggest asset — an implacable sense for sniffing out drugs including marijuana — could become a liability.

Phelan, a Labrador retriever, essentially had his police career cut short by statewide voters who approved Initiative 502, which legalized the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana by adults. But Phelan’s talents will not be wasted — he already has a new job lined up.

The dog’s handlers concluded his finely tuned nose could jeopardize investigations because while it can sniff out illegal substances, it can’t differentiate between them. Police were not successful trying to retrain Phelan to ignore pot.

Assistant Police Chief Mike Zaro gave a hypothetical example of why that could be problematic:

Phelan alerts his handler to illegal drugs in the trunk of a car. An officer is unable to tell a judge with absolute certainty there’s probable cause to believe illegal drugs are in the trunk, because they might be marijuana. And that hinders securing a search warrant.

Zaro said Lakewood has two drug-sniffing dogs on the force; with Phelan’s departure, it opens a spot for another dog trained to ignore marijuana.

“With us having two, we had the option of getting a second dog to make sure we were being as conservative as possible,” he said.

Phelan’s case highlights how police departments around the state are adjusting in different ways to the legalization of marijuana by voters in November and how it impacts four-legged police officers. Some departments are trying to retrain their dogs; others, including Tacoma, aren’t making any changes.

Fred Helfers of the Pacific Northwest Detection Dog Association told The Associated Press that retraining takes about 30 days initially with daily reinforcements

“Overall, I think there’s still a large amount of agencies on a wait-and-see approach with their dogs,” Helfers said.

That’s true of the drug-sniffing dog working for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, spokesman Ed Troyer said.

The Tacoma Police Department is not making any changes, spokeswoman Loretta Cool said.

Noting that “the dog doesn’t make the arrest, the officer does,” Cool said a canine alert is just one piece of evidence an officer considers when determining whether a crime has been committed.

She also noted that even with the initiative’s passage, state law still bars possession of large amounts of marijuana and use in public — scenarios in which a dog’s nose for pot could prove useful.

Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist said Friday that his office hasn’t provided a formal legal opinion on the matter, but it’s had informal talks with departments navigating through the changes.

“There’s no bright line answer right now,” he said. “Some agencies are erring on the side of caution. Those who want to err on the side of caution have good reason of divesting of those dogs because you can’t predict with any certainty how the courts will rule on this.”

Lindquist said his office has been told some trainers don’t believe dogs can be desensitized to the smell of marijuana and they could testify in a defendant’s bid to suppress drug evidence uncovered by a canine. Lindquist said a dog’s sniff alone can establish sufficient probable cause to secure a warrant in certain circumstances.

As for Phelan’s replacement, Lakewood has already found her: a Belgian Malinois named Kira who was trained not to alert when she smells marijuana. The cost was $6,000.

Duke, a Labrador retriever mix with the old-school training, will remain on the force for now.

Phelan hasn’t been retired to the house just yet.

The City Council on Monday approved selling him to the state Department of Corrections for $1 — the standard amount to prevent an unlawful gift of public funds. The state agency originally provided Phelan to the city in exchange for care and feeding.

Phelan will work in state prisons sniffing out contraband. His special talent will serve him well there, because marijuana is still not allowed behind bars.