Simsbury Police Department welcomes a new breed of officer
By Paul Palmer
SIMSBURY – The Simsbury Police has joined a growing club of law enforcement departments that are redefining what it means to have a police K9 unit. In October, the department welcomed Officer Clifton – age 21 months – as the first ever K9 on the department. But his role is probably not what you think of when someone says police dog. The traditional dogs are usually German Shepherds trained in detection and apprehension. Clifton is a Labrador retriever trained as a service and wellness dog. He knows more than 40 commands and is used to bring police and the community they serve closer together.
Clifton’s partner is Officer Jamie Ball, a 20-year police veteran who has served as Simsbury’s Community Officer for the last 9 years.
“Clifton’s not trained to search for people or drugs or as a bite/patrol dog. He doesn’t go in apprehend suspects. He’s kind of a newer philosophy in the last few years. It really broke out in the last 18 months in the state,” said Ball.
It is also a new role for Ball, as he has never been a K9 officer before.
“For me in a 20-year career this has been the highlight of it. To implement a program like this that has never been able to get through before is a big accomplishment,” Ball stated. “But at the end of the day as excited as I am for that accomplishment, I’m just the lucky leash holder.”
One of Clifton’s responsibilities is to help officers deal with the stress they take on each day. Recently Ball and Clifton spent about 3 hours at the Bristol Police Headquarters meeting with the co-workers of two officers who were slain in an ambush shooting.
“We were probably down there about 3 hours just to be there for the officers, not to talk about the incident, but just to let some of their officers and dispatchers interact with him. I heard a few of their officers and dispatchers say ‘this is the first time we have smiled in a week,’” Ball said.
Officer Clifton – and he does have a badge and is considered a member of the department – can be part of the crime victims support services as well as peer support for the officers. “We (officers) go to daily things like car accidents where people are injured or to domestic violence calls or things where a child is subjected to abuse things like that where it is hard when you have your own family and children," Ball said. “You come out of there and every day we pack a little of that away, push it into the back of our minds and hope it doesn’t resurface. They get that stress off their minds and relax a little bit and reset themselves.”
Getting Clifton was a nearly 2-year project that Ball spearheaded. The yellow lab came from Canine Companions – a nonprofit that started by training dogs for service work but has branched out training and providing dogs for veterans with PTSD and now police departments that are looking for these specific kids of dogs. Ball said the cost of getting a dog like Clifton and all his training is about $50,000, but Canine Companions donates the animals and training for free to departments. The only expense incurred are for things like kennels for the dogs to rest in, food, vet bills and alike. Ball says that a local Tractor Supply donated two kennels for Clifton - one for the office and one for home.
“I’ve given some presentations for donations,” Ball said. “The town is covering startup costs, but realistically we want to get donations to support the program. It’s for the community by the community.”
Simsbury was on a 14-month waiting list to get a dog like Clifton. The process for the dogs themselves are just as intensive as the screening for the departments and handlers. Canine Companions breeds all of its own labs, and at 8 weeks, the dogs go to puppy raisers around the country. For 13 months they’re socialized in all kinds of settings to expose them too as much as possible. If they pass that test, it’s back to Canine Companions where their professional dog trainers handle them for 6-8 months to learn the commands for assistance. It is at that point, the officer who will be paired with the dog is invited to team training and for 2 weeks they are taught how to properly handle the dog.
In securing Clifton, Ball says he had to do a lot of convincing because the department had never had any K9 Unit and some were not sure they even needed one. Ball says most people immediately thought he wanted to get the traditional police dog, but he had a completely different idea.
“Our Chief had never heard of it so I had to pitch it to him. I put together presentation for him and a power point presentation for our administrators and we just had an open dialogue for a few months.” Over the summer Ball and Chief Nick Boulter were at an event where several other departments had their service and wellness dogs. Once Boulter saw the interaction between them and the public and how well trained the dogs were, Ball says he gave his approval.
Although he’s been on the force less than a month, Clifton is already one of the most popular officers in the building. Ball said that just walking into or out of the building or down the halls at the Simsbury Town Hall, folks all know Clifton and want to stop and say hello. He even has his own Instagram page (K9Clifton_Simsburypd) for people to meet him and the other dogs serving at many of the departments around the state. It is that kind of approachability that the Community Relations officer wants to build across Simsbury. “Somebody who may be apprehensive to approach a police officer or may not know how to engage a police officer, now they can start interacting with him, he’s that ice breaker,” Ball said.” Next thing you know they are talking with the dog and then talking with the police officer.”
He has also made a big impression on his boss, Chief Boulter.
“Clifton has jumped right into service," Boulter said. "Within his first week, he put smiles on faces through town at events such as the Senior Center Fashion Show. People heard about him and randomly came to the department to see him.”
The plan is to go to schools and groups in town as well as library reading hours, concerts, and any of the other public service/community relations events the department has traditionally had and now include Officer Clifton.
Clifton will enhance our opportunities regarding relationships, education, emotional support, conflict resolution and investigations.
“Clifton will enhance our opportunities regarding relationships, education, emotional support, conflict resolution and investigations,”said Chief Boulter.
When he’s not on the job, Clifton lives with Ball on a small farm where he enjoys the company of horses and other dogs. The service time for a dog like Clifton is 8-10 years and Canine Companions and Ball are constantly evaluating Clifton and together will make any decision on when it is time to retire him. “Once we both agree he has reached the end of his working service life he will be retired and I’ll have first refusal for taking him in to be my own pet. We are creating a bond and by that time our bond will be so strong that of course I‘ll want to keep him.”
Until that time, Ball knows that his job and that of his partner is vital not only to the people of Simsbury, but also to the members of the police department.
“I can let an officer go and cry it out with Clifton. He can talk with Clifton and we know that Clifton is not going to go tell the Chief and that makes the officers feel more comfortable. They can get that out and go back out to do their job without carrying that extra weight.”