Small-town res­i­dents want po­lice dog back

Beloved Hustky helped chil­dren build trust­ing re­la­tion­ships with po­lice of­fi­cers

The Korea Times - - FEATURE - By Sarah Blaskey and Charles Rabin

MI­AMI — In late Novem­ber, a beloved mem­ber of the El Por­tal po­lice de­part­ment was re­moved from duty without of­fi­cial ex­pla­na­tion, caus­ing an up­roar among the vil­lage’s 2,400 res­i­dents who knew the po­lice rookie only as “Arc­tic.”

A 3-year-old Siberian Husky, with a face that melts hearts and a bark that sounds like a hu­man talk­ing, Arc­tic has been fa­mous since he was of­fi­cially sworn in to the po­lice de­part­ment on July 25, 2017. The tiny town of an­i­mal lovers im­me­di­ately adored him, and his Face­book page quickly gained over 1,000 fol­low­ers who wanted up­dates on his daily ac­tiv­i­ties.

Now, res­i­dents say Arc­tic is col­lat­eral dam­age in a vi­cious po­lit­i­cal feud be­tween a heavy-handed mayor/man­ager duo and Arc­tic’s han­dler, the for­mer po­lice chief. It’s a saga of palace in­trigue re­plete with half-truths, vendet­tas and a seem­ingly be­nign in­ci­dent re­sult­ing in Home­land Se­cu­rity’s knock­ing on the door of an out­spo­ken vil­lage res­i­dent.

Be­fore his han­dler was told not to bring Arc­tic back to work — the po­lice dog equiv­a­lent of be­ing fired with no warn­ing — Arc­tic was part of a com­mu­nity polic­ing ef­fort and out­reach pro­gram in El Por­tal. Rather than bark­ing, bit­ing, or sniff­ing, Arc­tic’s role was more ther­a­peu­tic. One of his fa­vorite as­sign­ments: hang­ing out with the kids at a lo­cal mid­dle school and tak­ing self­ies with them.

They didn’t even get to say good­bye be­fore his ser­vice was ter­mi­nated.

“I think it’s kinda sad be­cause the kids had started to build that re­la­tion­ship with Arc­tic,” said Kevin Lawrence, prin­ci­pal of Horace Mann Mid­dle School. He said hav­ing Arc­tic around helped the chil­dren be­gin to build healthy, trust­ing re­la­tion­ships with po­lice of­fi­cers, and would be a ma­jor loss for the stu­dents.

In re­sponse to ques­tions about the ba­sis for Arc­tic’s abrupt dis­missal, Vil­lage Man­ager Chris­tia Alou told the Mi­ami Her­ald that Arc­tic’s job with the po­lice de­part­ment never of­fi­cially ex­isted. His swear­ing in cer­e­mony noth­ing more than a “feel good thing” for the res­i­dents, she said.

Emails ob­tained by the Her­ald con­tra­dict the man­ager’s ac­count. They doc­u­ment the im­ple­men­ta­tion an of­fi­cial com­mu­nity po­lice dog pro­gram, es­tab­lished by the po­lice de­part­ment and ap­proved by the for­mer vil­lage man­ager, David Rose­mond, in 2017. Arc­tic was even added to the po­lice de­part­ment’s in­sur­ance pol­icy and went through rig­or­ous train­ing paid for by the vil­lage be­fore he was sworn in by the mayor, who fre­quently touted the K9 pro­gram.

“It was a great as­set to the com­mu­nity of El Por­tal. It was a shin­ing star to the pro­gram,” said Stead­man Stahl, pres­i­dent of the Po­lice Benev­o­lent As­so­ci­a­tion, the po­lice union in Mi­ami-Dade County. Stahl said he didn’t think the ap­par­ent dis­il­lu­sion of the K9 pro­gram had any­thing to do with Arc­tic’s per­for­mance. “I be­lieve the man­ager and mayor had more of a prob­lem with the han­dler than the dog,” Stahl said.

Arc­tic’s han­dler, Ron­nie Huf­nagel, was a 20-year-vet­eran of the vil­lage po­lice de­part­ment and served act­ing chief for just over a year be­tween 2017 and 2018.

Once a star of the vil­lage and friend of the mayor, Huf­nagel had a fall­ing out with Mayor Clau­dia Cu­bil­los and her right hand, Alou, in mid-2017. Open hos­til­i­ties be­tween them broke out around Vil­lage Hall.

Records show Huf­nagel never re­ceived a writ­ten rep­ri­mand un­til late 2018. They al­leged in­sub­or­di­na­tion or un­der­min­ing the au­thor­ity of the mayor and man­ager and fail­ing to com­ply with an of­fi­cial re­quest. There is no sig­na­ture or any no­ta­tion in­di­cat­ing Huf­nagel re­ceived the rep­ri­mands. By the time of pub­li­ca­tion, Alou had not pro­vided an ex­pla­na­tion.

After en­dur­ing months of pub­lic cri­tiques and crit­i­cism by the mayor and man­ager, Huf­nagel was de­moted back to sergeant on Nov. 13, 2018.

“I have never seen so much an­i­mos­ity to­ward po­lice,” said vil­lage res­i­dent Phillip An­dron­i­cos, who at­tended sev­eral of the meet­ings. “There was never any of this an­i­mos­ity when she was friends with the mayor.”

Some in El Por­tal say the bad blood be­gan over the mayor’s state­ments re­gard­ing the level of po­lice over­sight of the de­bris re­moval process after Hur­ri­cane Irma. Huf­nagel suggested there was no po­lice over­sight, de­spite the mayor’s pub­lic dec­la­ra­tion to the con­trary. Lit­tle proof has sur­faced pub­licly to sup­port ei­ther side of the dis­pute.

Cu­bil­los did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple at­tempts to con­tact her for this story. Alou did not re­spond to the Her­ald’s re­quest for com­ment re­gard­ing Huf­nagel’s per­for­mance.

Jose Perez, for­merly of the City of Mi­ami Po­lice De­part­ment, was brought out of re­tire­ment to re­place Huf­nagel de­spite hav­ing no ex­pe­ri­ence as chief and no con­nec­tion to El Por­tal. Just one week into Perez’s ten­ure, Arc­tic’s ser­vices were ter­mi­nated.

“I think it was one of the steps lead­ing up to get­ting rid of the han­dler,” said Stahl. “Un­for­tu­nately you see this in small towns.”

On Dec. 10, Huf­nagel was fired without ex­pla­na­tion. The ter­mi­na­tion let­ter, signed by Alou and dated Dec. 9, sim­ply in­structed Huf­nagel to turn in her car and any other vil­lage prop­erty and that her ter­mi­na­tion was ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately.

Mi­ami Her­ald-Tribune News Ser­vice

El Por­tal, Fla., of­fi­cer Ron­nie Huf­nagel with Ar­tic on July 25, 2017, after a cer­e­mony where Ar­tic was of­fi­cially sworn in as a K-9 of­fi­cer for the city.

Los An­ge­les Times-Tribune News Ser­vice

A sam­pling of the 66 firearms con­fis­cated in one week in 2016 by the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion at air­ports across the coun­try. A Los An­ge­les Times anal­y­sis found that most trav­el­ers who are caught try­ing to carry guns onto planes at LAX re­ceive fines and/or pro­ba­tion.

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