Photo by Diane Cox
Officer Michael Young with K-9 officer Degen.
EAST ALTON — When it comes to an officer’s K-9 partner, a nonprofit organization is doing its best to protect man’s best friend.
East Alton officer Michael Young is the partner and handler of Degen, a 6-year-old Belgian malinois, who will soon receive a bulletproof vest through Vested Interest in K-9s Inc., a charity in East Taunton, Mass. The organization aims to provide bullet and stab protective vests to dogs of law enforcement and related agencies at no cost to the departments.
“Degen may be seen as a tool or even a pet, but is also a part of my and the department’s family,” Young said. “We all love him.
“Degen has been on the streets since 2008,” Young said. “It’s always been my dream to be partnered with a K-9 and Degs is always ready to go to work.”
Rocco, an 8-year-old German shepherd, was fatally stabbed in the line of duty on Jan. 28 in Pittsburgh. Vested Interest in K-9s is donating vests in Rocco’s memory to protect four-legged officers on the streets.
Vested Interest in K-9s was founded by Sandy Marcel and has been working on vesting K-9 officers for the last 14 years. To date, about 1,047 law enforcement dogs have received vests.
“Sandy has made it her life’s work to put a vest on as many K-9s as possible,” said Justine Long, public relations coordinator for Vested Interest. “People don’t realize that these dogs are not just animals, but rather partners and family members, too.”
Vested Interests in K-9s was selected by the Occasions campaign for Groupon Grassroots to outfit police K-9s with bullet and stab protective vests. The online tax-deductible fund-raiser ran Feb. 15 through March 5. Campaign organizers suggested interested people purchase a Groupon through the secure website, and funds were allocated to buy ballistic vests for K-9 officers.
“This is our fourth year participating in this fund-raiser with Groupon,” Long said. “It’s been so successful that we’ve raised over $335,000 and now we’re searching for K-9s to vest.”
Vests cost $950 and are custom-made for each K-9’s measurements. They are manufactured at Armor Express in Michigan, which also does the custom embroidery on the body armor. Every vest will be embroidered with the words "In Memory of Rocco, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police."
“It takes 12 to 14 weeks to customize a vest and have it shipped to the department,” Long said. “Degen should receive his vest by the end of June or early July ... we’re just thrilled we can provide this piece of life-saving equipment to our four-legged officers.”
The vests are made with Dyneema, which offers wearers protection against a range of threats — including handgun ammunition, fast-moving fragments and knives, while providing the lightest-weight options with maximum flexibility and comfort. Dyneema vests can be made up to 40 percent lighter without a drop in ballistic performance. This reduced weight gives users increased speed and flexibility.
“I’ve been in contact with Pittsburgh K-9 officers since Rocco was killed in action,” Long said. “Their department is just in awe with the amount of support they’ve received through this horrible situation ... people have flocked to help.”
Young had to complete 320 hours of training through the Illinois State Police to become Degen’s partner and handler. Because Degen was in service prior to Young’s partnership, he already was a fully trained K-9.
“As with any piece of new equipment, it’ll take some time for him (Degen) to get used to it,” Young said. “I’m sure he’ll have to work on getting used to the added heat since dogs keep more heat in, and also the additional weight.”
K-9 officers have the same legal protection as human officers. If a suspect injures a law enforcement dog, they can be brought up on the same charges as if they attacked a human officer. K-9s live in their handler’s home.
“Even though Degen is a tool to be used as needed, we have a bond and he is always there to have my back with no second guessing,” Young said. “For him to have a vest, it gives me a little more reassurance that he will be going home with me at the end of the day ... after all, our goal is to work effectively, be a service to the community and then the most important thing is for us both to make it back home.”
Police dogs have been used in law enforcement since the mid-1800s, beginning in London. Bloodhounds helped catch criminals by tracking the suspects’ scent from crime scenes.
To donate to Vested Interest in K-9’s or sponsor a vest for a law enforcement dog, donations can be made online at www.viK-9s.org.