September 16, 2014

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Amherst police cut K-9 unit

AMHERST — The Amherst Police Department has disbanded its K-9 unit, a decision that comes at nearly the same time an officer filed a lawsuit against the city claiming he is owed additional compensation for being a police dog handler.

The lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court, alleges that by not paying Officer Joshua McCoy for the additional work he does with Buddy, the German shepherd he was partnered with in 2010, Amherst is in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

McCoy has been with the department since October 2005 and has worked exclusively with Buddy in recent years.

The lawsuit contends McCoy has consistently worked beyond 40 hours a week in that role without overtime wages or additional compensation.

In addition to police duties, McCoy does many tasks with and for Buddy to ensure he is ready for police service at all time.

It is the time spent on those activities, such as feeding, grooming, walking and training, which are the basis for the lawsuit.

But it looks like Buddy’s role as an Amherst police dog has come to an end. As of Jan. 1, Police Chief Joseph Kucirek elected to disband the K-9 unit.

Amherst Law Director Anthony Pecora said the decision was made prior to the lawsuit being filed. It became effective Jan. 1.

“I know the allegation was made that this was done because of the lawsuit, but this is something the chief has been contemplating for some time,” Pecora said. “From my understanding, the chief has been looking at the need for a K-9 officer for some time.”

Kucirek was on vacation and not available for comment. In his absence, police Lt. Dan Jasinski said the department was referring all comment to the Amherst Law Department.

McCoy’s attorney, Jason Bristol, said the chief’s decision, which didn’t officially come down until several days after the lawsuit was filed, is being investigated as possible retaliation against the officer.

“I’m surprised by the city’s response. A Fair Labor Standards lawsuit is a pretty routine thing when there is a dispute about wages,” Bristol said. “The city’s response is what makes this controversial. But the citizens are the ones who are losing the most because K-9 officers are very effective policing tools.”

Pecora said he could not comment on the lawsuit as the city has not been formally served.

He and Mayor David Taylor are aware of its filing.

“But I can say the city has been trying to resolve any issues of compensation with the officer prior to the filing of the lawsuit,” Pecora said. “The city has been attempting to work with the union to negotiate some sort of agreement. The union has not engaged the city despite numerous requests.”

Bristol said the agreement the city sought to have McCoy sign was far below the industry standard for the type of work K-9 officers perform and the stipulations still would have violated the labor act.

“Usually the law looks at what the reasonable amount of time is to perform the type of care the dog needs,” he said. “Some say it’s an additional eight hours and others say more time is appropriate.”

Bristol said compensation has not always been an issue for McCoy.

He said there was a written agreement in place when he was first partnered with Buddy that former Police Chief Lonnie Dillon was more flexible in enforcing.

Kucirek, who took over in January 2011, elected to take a different path in terms of compensation, Bristol said.

“But having a police dog live in your home is different than having a pet. To say Buddy is just a dog does not do him justice,” Bristol said. “He and Officer McCoy are expected to be ready and available for police service at a moment’s notice.”

State law stipulates that McCoy now has the first right to purchase Buddy from Amherst for $1. Both Pecora and Bristol said the officer is taking steps to assume ownership of Buddy.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.