JEFFERSON — Police dogs won’t be used by the Sheriff’s Office until an ongoing lawsuit against the office by a former K-9 handler is resolved and funding for associated overtime costs is accounted for.
Former Deputy Mark Mullett, who in April resigned from the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Office, filed a federal class action lawsuit May 3 in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio accusing the Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners, Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff William Johnson of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Mullett bought his dog, named Jager, with his own money, according to the complaint, and most training between he and the dog occurred while he was off-duty. Mullett, who became a K-9 handler in 2014, claims he was never paid for the time and that longevity bonuses he and others received were never factored into overtime.
Since 1984, there have been about two dozen dog handlers and 30 dogs used within the sheriff’s office, Sheriff William Johnson said. In recent times, there have been two K-9’s and two handlers, though at one point there were five and the office has not replaced some because of attrition.
Johnson said the law is clear and Mullett will likely win his case. Overtime must be paid to K-9 handlers, Johnson said, yet there has never been a line item in the budget designated specifically for K-9 handlers.
Johnson said he obtained legal advice that the K-9 units should be abolished until the overtime issue and lawsuit is resolved.
“We have to rectify the lawsuit,” he said.
Johnson said the county has never paid for K-9’s, private donations have. A legal case in 1985 stipulated that handlers must be paid overtime, and everyone in the office over the years was well aware of this ruling but no one had ever requested the overtime before now, Johnson said.
“Somebody left, thought they could get the money and they can,” Johnson said. “They’re going to win.”
Johnson said back overtime pay will need to be paid. If the K-9 program is brought back — which Johnson said he hopes happens because it is a valuable program — there will need to be an agreement with commissioners that each handler gets eight hours of overtime every two weeks to take care of the dog on their off time.
Without a separate overtime line item for this purpose, or additional funding, Johnson said he would have to decide which area of his budget to trim to accommodate the overtime costs associated with K-9’s and handlers.
“When you’ve got to have the choice between having K-9’s and having officers, you’ve got to have the officers,” Johnson said.
The Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved hiring an outside attorney with expertise in labor law to handle the Mullett lawsuit for a cost not to exceed $10,000. Though commissioners said they are aware Johnson is halting the K-9 unit, they said additional budget requests from his office or the K-9 program have not yet been made.
The Sheriff’s Office is not the only law enforcement agency in the county to have faced this situation.
In 2012, the city of Ashtabula, faced with budget challenges and an inability to pay overtime costs for handlers, scrapped its K-9 program. The decision was prompted when several officers filed suit against the city saying they were not properly compensated with overtime pay for the work they did with their dogs.
Since that time Ashtabula was able to resolve the issue and bring K-9’s back to the police department.