Officer: Thanks to K-9 unit, drug dealers tend to avoid St. Marys

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Just months after a presentation by Jefferson County Sheriff Carl Gotwald and his K-9 unit, Bret, the Punxsutawney Area School Board met yet another four-legged officer during its meeting Monday.

St. Marys City Police Officer Mike Shaffer introduced his K-9 unit, Copper, to the board Monday and said having the K-9 unit in St. Marys and the surrounding area has proven to deter people from bringing drugs into the area.

St. Marys is not a huge area, Shaffer said, but noted that he makes dozens of drug arrests per year, but mostly outside the city.

“When we asked them (someone who has been arrested), ‘What were your plans?’ they say, ‘I don’t want to come to St. Marys because of the dog,’” he said.

Instead, Shaffer sees more drug activity in areas such as Ridgway or Johnsonburg, saying, “It is a level of deterrent that I cannot measure.”
A six-year-old German shepherd, Copper came from the Czech Republic and is a common sight to residents and students. Shaffer said he takes Copper to the two high schools, two middle school and two elementary schools in the St. Marys area, as well as to after-school events, on rotating shifts.

“There’s respect for a dog that’s not there for humans,” he said. “People have great respect for the dog.”

Shaffer and Copper search about 10 districts in the St. Marys area, recalling one such example of how much a deterrent the dog is.

He described a bomb threat that was deemed credible at a school, so officers and the K-9 unit prepared for the time when the alleged device was supposed to detonate.

The threat was hollow, but at a time when the school was locked down, and students coming to school learned their bags would be searched, and their persons frisked, they started dropping some items they didn’t need in school.

“As soon as the kids saw the dog, they were ditching everything,” Shaffer said. “Throwing it under cars, stashing it in the trees. That was a testament of how much (illegal drug paraphernalia) can get in.”
Copper — who responds to commands in both

English and German — is trained in detection of drugs such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, crack, ecstasy and other drugs. Shaffer also said that because it is a small area, drug dealers can make “four times the profit” in a town such as St. Marys than in Pittsburgh or Cleveland, for example.

“The supply is low, and the demand is there” in smaller towns, he said.
When Copper finds drugs or paraphernalia, he is trained to sit, the cue that he believes there is something there. Shaffer said he does not do the actual search for the item, instead leaving that up to a school or law enforcement official who then determines the next legal move.

The dog does not search actual people, for fear something might trigger the dog into biting the subject.

In addition to Bret and Gotwald — whom Shaffer said he has not met — he is the only K-9 unit between Cattaraugus County, N.Y., and State College. Therefore, he spends a lot of time in training sessions to make the St. Marys K-9 unit even better. He already working on plans for St. Marys next K-9 unit when Copper must retire.

Copper is a fine tool in eradicating drugs from the community, Shaffer said.

“It’s my goal to get it out of the community,” he added.

When asked by a member of the public if Copper has performed searches on school employees and in parking lots, Shaffer said that has occurred a few times.

Copper is also trained to track, and in one incident, police, with Copper’s help, found an eight-year-old autistic child who had left his family’s home on a rainy, 40-degree night. Copper and the officers found the child within 30 minutes, about a mile-and-a-half from his home.
“We’re helping out,” Shaffer said. “We’re saving lives.”

At the end of the presentation, Copper found two items that were pre-planted in the board room, and he also demonstrated his reward for successfully finding the items: Playing with his master.

“He doesn’t know he’s looking for drugs,” Shaffer said. “All he knows is if he finds something, he gets to play.”

Board President Gary Conrad said he hoped Shaffer’s presentation could springboard Punxsy into setting up a similar program with local police.
“We hope that catches on here,” he said.