The Stark County Commission voted unanimously during official proceedings this month to approve the Stark County Sheriff's Office request to begin the process of implementing a K-9 unit.

Sheriff Corey Lee, who was instrumental in the successes of the Dickinson Police Department's K-9 unit, said that he appreciated the commission's vote, but said there were still many hurdles left before his department would have an active K-9 unit.

Lee said the first step in the process would be to raise funds from the community to help offset the taxpayers burden.

"I've been doing this for years, so I kind of have my ways of going about doing what I do," Lee said. "We're going to talk to some of the people who have helped us out in the years past and we're going to try some new avenues. Maybe we'll do some more creative things to keep it fresh."

Addressing the finances associated with such an endeavor, Lee said his goal would be to secure enough funding to maintain the K-9 department's initial and continuing costs.

"Obviously we have some magic numbers in mind, but the goal is obviously going to be to pay for the K-9 itself, the initial training and initial equipment we need. There's equipment needed for training and maintaining the dog and there's equipment needed to change over the squad car that's going to work to transport the K-9," Lee said. "We're going to use an existing squad car because we're not looking to go out and buy anything new. Obviously you have other costs as well, including travel kennels and stuff like that."

Long-term costs associated with implementing a K-9 department are, according to Lee, things that must be sorted out prior to jumping headlong into the finer details of the program.

"We also want to have enough money raised and continue raising money annually for things such as vet bills, food and any other recurring costs," he said. "We're actually going to start with one team and run it for a year or more and see where our numbers go. If the numbers are off the charts, then that would dictate the need for another K-9 down the road."

As to what type of dog he sought to purchase, Lee said it appears that the first K-9 acquired by the department would be what is termed a "single purpose narcotics" dog.

"We are not going to go with what is termed a patrol or dual purpose dog at this time. We don't have anyone yet that is prepared to handle a patrol K-9 at this time, and I feel like we are going to succeed best with a single purpose narcotics dog," he said. "That's usually the best way to start a program, with a dog that is a little more friendly. We can certainly still teach them to search for evidence and suspects, there just won't be an apprehension element involved."

Lee addressed some of the concerns that have been raised with the possibility of narcotics K-9s becoming partially obsolete as it relates to certain trained scents - specifically K-9s trained to detect marijuana. Many in the state foresee marijuana becoming legal, thus resulting in additional taxpayer costs required to retrain a narcotics dog off of a scent.

"The only department in the state that I know of that has gotten away from marijuana is the Bismarck Police Department. I know that they have two K-9s that are not trained in marijuana, and that's certainly a decision that we would have to make," Lee said. "I'm really 50/50 on it right now, because I see us in North Dakota eventually decriminalizing marijuana. The plan, I think, is leaning toward a cite and release, and I think we'll see that before we see the legalization of marijuana. But you just never know."

Lee added, "To gamble that decision on one of the tools on our tool belt, which in all honesty that's what a K-9 department is, could potentially find us two years down the road with a tool that doesn't work. You can typically train younger dogs off of odors, but it can be difficult and sometimes not successful. So it's a decision that we're considering and it's a gamble because we just don't know what's going to happen yet."

Despite the potential for marijuana to become legal in the state, Lee outlined other uses for narcotics dogs trained on marijuana.

"Another concern that we have to consider is the issue that these dogs get a lot of use in our schools and that's why I'm really torn on the marijuana part," he said. "It's really 50/50 and obviously we're going to have to make a choice on this really quickly here so that we can move ahead."

In addition to the extensive financial considerations, Lee said that policies and procedures need to be adopted internally for the program to be successful - a process that he said will be easier with his past experiences with Dickinson Police Department.

"We would actually use the same policy as the Dickinson Police Department, it's called Lexipol," he said. "We would use that policy as a baseline for adopting our own. The thing is, with Lexipol you take the standard baseline policies and adapt them to your own departmental needs and practices. We would make some minor tweaks and changes to make it fit our department."

As for who would be the lucky Deputy to become the first K-9 handler in department history, Lee said it was something that was technically still open.

"We're certainly all about fairness in opening positions up, but at this time I've only had one deputy express interest in the position," he said.

Speaking to the public, Lee addressed his appreciation for the continued support of the Stark County Sheriff's Office.

"We certainly appreciate and are very humbled by the support we've gotten in the past, and we hope that it will continue moving forward," he said. "If anyone knows of any avenues, or has any ideas, we are certainly open to hearing them and I would ask that readers contact me at any time with those comments and ideas, or anything else for that matter. My door is always open."