Detroit officer probed after K-9 dies in hot car

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Police K-9 officers line up with their dogs before a police funeral. A Detroit officer is being investigated after his German Shepard drug-sniffing and racking dog, Vieto, died from heat exposure after being locked in a police SUV in June 2018.

A Detroit police K-9 officer is under investigation after his dog died of heat-related injuries after being left in a hot vehicle for about 40 minutes.

The incident happened June 26, when "Vito," a German shepherd drug-sniffing and tracking dog, was locked inside a police SUV that shut down, said Detroit police Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood on Monday.

Without the air conditioner on, the dog suffered from the heat and died the next day, Kirkwood said. 

"The dog was found unresponsive inside the vehicle by his handler," he said. "The officer immediately made notification (to the department) and sought aid for the K-9.

"It looked like the dog was going to recover but unfortunately it died the next day of cardiac arrest," Kirkwood said.

Cmdr. Darin Szilagy of the department's Metropolitan Division said the officer left the dog in order to pick up another vehicle.

The officer involved, a 10-year veteran, had a history of treating the dog well, Szilagy said.

"He's inconsolable right now," he said. "He's a good officer who was active with the dog. He's been put on patrol duty and isn't handling dogs."

Officers handling animals are required to check on them every 30 minutes, Szilagy said.

"The vehicles are equipped with auto start and an emergency heat alarm system," Szilagy said. "If the car is running with the AC and the motor turns off, what's supposed to happen is, the windows roll down, fans turn on and the horn's supposed to honk.

"The motor did shut off, but the alarm system failed. That said, our investigation did find culpability on the part of the officer, because he knew the vehicle's timing was off and didn't report it.

"The motor probably cut out pretty quickly after they left," Szilagy said. 

"The dog initially responded well to treatment at the vet," he said. "But he died the next day."

The matter is being handled by the Disciplinary Administration Section. "There will be a hearing to decide what the officer will face," Szilagy said. 

Detroit temperatures reached a high of 80 degrees on June 26, according to the National Weather Service. But according to a 2005 Stanford University study, "a car's interior can heat up by an average of 40 degrees Fahrenheit within an hour, regardless of ambient temperature. Eighty percent of the temperature rise occurred within the first half-hour."

The Detroit incident surfaces in the wake of the death of a South Carolina K-9 death that made national headlines.

“Turbo,” a Columbia, S.C., police dog, died last month after being left in a vehicle for more than six hours while his handler was at active-shooter training at a high school. The officer was suspended without pay for five days.

At least four police dogs nationwide have died this year from heat-related problems after being left inside vehicles, although that number is unofficial since there's no requirement for police departments to report police dog deaths, said Catie Cryar, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Associated Press reported.

Last year, PETA counted 13 police dog heat-related deaths, Cryar said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN