Small-town residents want police dog back
Beloved Hustky helped children build trusting relationships with police officers
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.
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.
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