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Mahoning dog wardens to get body cameras

Deputy Dog Warden Greg Dochess of Austintown says hello to dog Nelson in the kennel at the Mahoning Dog Warden's building on North Meridian Road. Nelson, who is adoptable, is named after Deputy Dog Warden Dave Nelson, who was stabbed in the arm while responding to a call about involving the lab-mix on July 20. In about six weeks, the Mahoning County Dog Warden's Office could start using six body cameras to help document dangerous incidents.

YOUNGSTOWN — The Mahoning County Dog Warden’s Office can start using six body cameras in about six weeks following approval by the Mahoning County commissioners.

The commissioners approved a contract with Intrensic LLC of Austin, Texas, on July 15, before Deputy Dog Warden Dave Nelson was attacked and stabbed by a man in a wheelchair on the South Side while Nelson and others responded to a call about a dog.

Mahoning County Dog Warden Dianne Fry said the July 20 attack on Nelson was the most violent attack involving someone at the dog warden’s office since she became director in 2013, but there have been other scary incidents in the past.

“The last couple of years, it feels like things are escalating,” she said of dangerous situations for employees. “We have (deputy dog wardens) on call every night, and they are by themselves, so safety is a huge issue for me.”

The fact that Nelson was attacked so viciously last month is coincidental to approval of the body cameras. She had begun studying and selecting body cameras long ago, after hearing a presentation at the most recent Ohio Dog County Dog Wardens Association convention partly because of a threat a man made at the dog warden’s office. Police investigated the incident, but the man denied having said certain things, Fry said.

“We have had people threaten to shoot us. So that would have been nice to have that (body cameras) in the building when that was going on, so that maybe it would not have escalated that high,” Fry said. “It’s a backup to what was said. We had one gentleman say he was going to shoot us. But when the police were called and everything was said and done, he said: ‘You misunderstood me, I said I was going to sue them.’ So how do you argue with that? How do you prove it for yourself?”

She said she believes the existence of video cameras can “defuse a situation and keep everybody on their best behavior, which is certainly what we’re looking for.” She said she believes that will be the case out in the community or in the dog warden’s North Meridian Road facility.

“It’s sort of going to be like a dash cam in our lobbies — both the front and back lobbies,” she said. The office’s surveillance system currently does not provide the level of protection she would like, she said.

COST AND BACKUP

Fry has relied on the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office for help on the project and selected the same type of cameras the sheriff’s office uses so someone is nearby to help if technical issues arise.

According to the Mahoning County commissioners, the first-year cost is $6,804, which includes the cost to provide the cameras and other hardware. Fry said the second-year cost is $3,336.

Those prices include video storage, maintenance, 12-month warranty, user training, redaction services and software upgrades, Fry said.

Funds called “safety dollars” that come from Workers’ Compensation are paying for the first-year hardware and other costs for the body cameras, said Cathy Jones, director of the county’s risk-management department. Such funds are provided for safety or efficiency projects such like this, Jones said. The dog warden’s budget will cover future costs.

The dog warden’s office will be using Intrensic X1 body worn cameras. Three or four of the cameras are likely to be on deputy dog wardens out in the community, but the two or three other cameras will be available for other uses, such as in the office.

“It’s almost like there is somebody with them to say, ‘This is what happened,'” Fry said of the cameras.

As for the jobs deputy dog wardens do in cities, villages and townships across the county, Fry said: “We’re a small department. Sometimes they are going to not nice parts of town. They have to get out of their van and chase dogs.”

She said it can be dangerous.

Asked if she’s concerned that people will wonder if body cameras are necessary for deputy dog wardens, she said, “We are a symptom of everything that goes on in this community. If you have an active dog warden’s office, nine times out of 10, you have active domestics, you have drugs, all the things, firearms, violence, all of that. We get called on a fairly regular basis to move dogs aside so that search warrants can be executed.

“In many cases, those dogs end up at the dog pound. We’ll take these dogs, and three days later (the owner) gets let out of jail and want their dog and they’re here and they’re irate,” she said. “We have dangerous situations, not on a daily basis like a police department does, but it’s more regular than we would like.”

Fry said the cameras are an attempt to improve safety but also to have evidence to prove what happened in certain situations. “The police officers, the chiefs of police I’ve talked to who have body cameras in place, (they say) you can’t lie on video,” Fry said.

IMPROVED SAFETY

She said she has tried to improve safety since she became dog warden in 2013.

“We’ve come a long way,” she said. “We are dispatched in the evening through Austintown police. We have police radios in case somebody gets hurt. They used to have pagers. We have GPS in our vans to make sure where the vans are all the time. We do everything we can to make our employees safer, especially at night. But I’ve always told them if they think it’s not a safe situation, turn around or call for a police backup. Don’t put yourself in danger.”

Mahoning County law-enforcement officers such as police officers and deputies take good care of deputy dog wardens in dangerous situations, Fry said.

“I think it is the wave across the state,” Fry said of dog wardens getting body cameras. “They are looking for ways to keep people safe and to be transparent and do better.”

Fry said she does not know how many other county dog wardens in Ohio use body cameras.

Nor did Deborah Conway, dog warden for Cuyahoga County, who is president of the Ohio County Dog Wardens Association.

“Body cameras are new to dog wardens in general, so I don’t have that number,” she said by telephone last week.

She said dog warden offices across Ohio’s 88 counties provide different levels of service depending on what a county can afford or needs, so the need for body cameras will vary based on that.

“Some dog warden’s offices are run by the county sheriff’s office and respond to emergency calls after hours 24 hours a day,” she said. “Some only respond to certain calls like during open business hours. Anything to protect both people and animals is a worthwhile investment,” she said.

Among the things a dog warden’s office does is make sure dogs are licensed, pick up stray dogs and handle occasional dog bites, Fry said. But Mahoning County also requires dogs to have current rabies vaccines, Fry said.

“It’s become much more a police agency,” she said of dog warden’s offices. “We’re always trying to find a way within our budget to make it safer and do better for everybody. I think this, for a very reasonable cost, hits a lot of those marks.”

She said the body camera representative who spoke at the last annual convention said dog warden offices should be using some type of body camera system.

“They said even if you get a camera on Amazon, everybody needs to be doing this now. So I came back and started asking other departments about it and looking into it.”

erunyan@vindy.com

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