JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Man's best friend has been a valuable tool for officers for decades.
News4Jax went to a K-9 demonstration Tuesday to talk to handlers about additional safety measures that are protecting police K-9s. The demonstration showed how deputies use K-9s to catch criminals.
"We’ve got missing persons. You have people that run from the law. And we have just everyday calls --traffic stops, narcotics detection," said Clay County sheriff's Deputy Mark Maertz.
K-9 units are some of the most expensive parts of a law enforcement budget and, in many agencies, are the most underfunded. That’s where K9s United comes in. The nonprofit raises money to pay for things such as bulletproof vests, training and car alarms to make sure the dogs don’t overheat.
"These K-9s risk their lives to keep us safe," said K9s United founder Debbie Johnson. "It just means that we -- as a community -- we value their service."
News4Jax met Johnson at Safariland's headquarters on Jacksonville's Northside. The company designs and manufactures lifesaving equipment for law enforcement -- officers and dogs alike.
Jacksonville sheriff’s Officer Jared Reston, who was shot in the line of duty 11 years ago, said he’s alive because of his vest.
"It’s leaps and bounds from when I got shot to what we are wearing now," Reston said. "It’s much thinner, much lighter -- just different combinations of different fabrics or whatever they do."
K9s United and Safariland have teamed up to better equip officers and their four-legged partners.
Johnson said they've also made strides with a bill that would increase criminal penalties for people who injure or kill police K-9s in Florida.
"It's just better for all the dogs, as far as protection," said Baker County sheriff's Cpl. Patrick McGauley.
The bill (SB 96) -- sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach -- stems from the death of K-9 Fang, a 3-year-old member of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit that police said was shot and killed last September by a teenager fleeing after carjacking two women at a gas station.
The bill, approved by Florida lawmakers and sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, would make it a second-degree felony, up from a third-degree felony, for people who kill or cause great bodily harm to police, fire or search-and-rescue dogs or police horses.
"We would like to challenge other states to follow suit," Johnson said. "Florida is only the third state to increase penalties to a second-degree felony -- Utah, Pennsylvania and now Florida."
Johnson said it’s the least that can be done for such loyal law enforcers.
For anyone who would like to get involved with K9s United, the organization will be hosting a fundraising race May 11 at Metropolitan Park. Safariland is the "Big Dog" sponsor. For more details, visit K9sUnited.org.