'Rico' eyed as regional asset


Mercyhurst University is going to the dogs. First there was Bailey, a therapy dog the counseling center acquired two years ago to help students cope with life’s physical and emotional challenges. Now, the fluffy black-and-white Havanese has company on campus, a formidable friend named Rico.

Rico, a Belgian Malinois trained to detect explosives, will serve as a security enhancement for the university and a public safety resource for the entire region, thanks to $13,000 in private funds secured with the assistance of state Sen. Sean Wiley. The funds have also enabled Mercyhurst to purchase a used canine vehicle from the Cambridge Springs Police Department. Further, a $3,000 donation from Erie Insurance will serve to sustain the program by covering Rico’s daily upkeep, veterinary expenses, training updates and vehicle maintenance.

Mercyhurst University President Thomas J. Gamble, Ph.D., said the university chose to provide the canine unit because of Mercyhurst’s expertise in the area of law enforcement education and training. 

“Mercyhurst is a repository of law enforcement training, from our Public Safety Institute to our Municipal Police Training Academy to our intelligence studies, forensics and criminal justice programs, so this is a natural for us,” Gamble said.  “While the canine unit may afford a marginal increase in safety for our students, we see the dog as a community resource that further enhances the strong relationship between Mercyhurst University and the regional public safety system."

Indeed, Mercyhurst is in the process of finalizing a Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Erie that will make its explosives-detection canine team available to the Erie Police Department’s Bomb Squad on an as-needed basis.

Mercyhurst Police Chief Robert Kuhn said that the availability of canine units trained in explosives detection has dwindled locally and that Mercyhurst will be providing a much needed resource. He said Rico is the only explosives-detection dog in the immediate area, short of the state police’s canine unit in Corry. The Erie Police Department had a dog trained to detect explosives; however, with the retirement of canine officer Tony DeBacco in August, that is no longer the case. DeBacco, meanwhile, has joined the staff of Mercyhurst Police & Safety on a part-time basis and will assist Rico’s newly trained handler, Mercyhurst police officer Brandon Miller.

Kuhn said Rico will accompany Miller on campus patrols, both on foot and in the canine wagon. While Mercyhurst has not experienced a bomb threat, a bomb-sniffing dog will serve to heighten the level of security on campus. Kuhn cited last year’s series of bomb threats that forced repeated evacuations at the University of Pittsburgh and suggested that having a dog on a well confined campus like Mercyhurst’s would help to discourage that kind of activity.

On behalf of the university, Gamble thanked Sen. Wiley for his efforts. “Mercyhurst is proud to make this resource available to support the region’s law enforcement and public safety needs, and grateful to Sen. Wiley for making it happen,” he said.

PHOTO: Officer Brandon Miller & Rico
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