Jeannette K9 officer retires young due to handler's transfer

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Jeannette lost not only one but two of its crime fighters when patrolman Justin Scalzo recently decided to leave the city and take a position with the Greensburg Police Department.

City council last week approved letting the police department’s canine officer, Falco, remain with his handler. Mr. Scalzo will also be keeping the department’s former canine officer, Wando, who was retired in 2012 due to arthritis.

Although police Chief Shannon Binda said a canine unit is a very important crime-fighting tool for the city, he explained the dog was let go due to the city’s restraints on the department’s budget and the fact that none of the remaining officers is a certified canine handler.

Mr. Scalzo said both Falco, 4, and Wando, 11, will continue to live with him, his wife and their three children. He is unsure whether Falco, who is still young enough to work, will return to a beat since Mr. Scalzo was hired by Greensburg as only a patrolman, not a canine handler.

Jeannette reinitiated its canine unit in 2005 when Wando was obtained by the city through a grant from John Peck, Westmoreland County district attorney. The city’s previous dog was retired in 1999.

Falco was purchased in May 2012 for $6,500 through a grant from the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation at The Giving Back Fund. He completed training November 2012 and was officially added to the force.

In the meantime, Mr. Scalzo voluntarily set up a separate fund that paid for both dogs’ other costs, including food and veterinary care.

“The taxpayers never paid a dime for the dogs,” said Mr. Scalzo, who pointed that while at Jeannette he only collected his patrolman salary. He declined any additional pay for being a canine handler.

Wando and Falco worked as dual-purpose police dogs as they were certified in narcotics detection and patrolling.

In the seven years that Wando worked, he had more than 6,000 narcotics finds and more than 100 apprehensions. Falco was on his way to being as successful as his predecessor, having been responsible for numerous arrests, such as that in the fall of 2011 when the dog cornered a suspect in a home invasion and held three suspected heroin dealers at bay while police stopped their car and found 270 bags of heroin and a gun inside.

While Jeannette will definitely feel the absence of a canine unit, Mr. Scalzo said it’s possible for the city to get another dog.

He said the city could obtain grant money to purchase and train another dog.

“I still would help find the grant money needed for a program in the city,” he said, adding that it costs between $5,000 to $6,000 to purchase a dog and another $9,000 for its training.

However, Mr. Scalzo explained that Jeannette’s one main obstacle may be securing someone to handle the dog. With budgetary cuts, the police department already has a strained force, and Mr. Scalzo said an officer would have to be taken off the road and sent to school to complete the 440 hours of training needed to be certified as a handler.

Mr. Scalzo began his new job with Greensburg on Tuesday. Falco’‍s last official job as a Jeannette officer was last week when the dog and Mr. Scalzo did a demonstration at the Pennsylvania State Police Camp Cadet.


Linda Metz, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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