MTA Canine Unit Police Sgt. Edward O'Flaherty and his German Shepard Duke, 7, patrol the Harlem - 125th Street Metro North Train Station. (Photo by RJ Mickelson/amNY)
Since the nightmarish months after 9/11, these dogs have used their powerful noses and instincts to protect countless commuters, and have become a reassuring presence in transit hubs such as Grand Central Terminal.
But the MTA’s 43 well-trained K-9 unit dogs has a problem: The pooches and their handlers need a home — of sorts. And that home could make them even better at their jobs.
“It's a sore subject with us,” said Sgt. Ed O'Flaherty, while out with his dog Duke during a recent patrol of the Harlem Metro-North station. “We definitely need a facility” for training and other work.The dog-cop teams have been without a headquarters since the unit’s inception in 2002.
The unit, which has a $10 million annual budget, detects explosives across Metro-North, Long Island Rail Road and Staten Island Railway facilities, and assists with the city's subway patrols.
“These dogs just want to go,” said Officer Brian McCormack, as he held on to Burris in Penn Station. “The more training you give them, the more they accomplish.”
The canines sniff out an average of 10 unattended packages a day, O'Flaherty said, noting that without the dogs, the bomb squad would have to suspend service while they deploy search robots.
The dogs also help nab bad guys. MTA police dog Hero and his handler, Lt. John Kerwick, chased down a home-invasion suspect this month in White Plains and recovering his loaded .40 caliber gun.
But getting the dogs to this level of proficiency takes a lot of work — and that’s where a training facility would come in handy.
It takes at least three months to train a dog and its handler in explosives detection. Officers have access to small work stations at the various transit terminals, but without a central facility, teams must travel 75 miles north from the city to train at borrowed space in Orange County.
“It's not efficient. We're always bouncing around,” O'Flaherty said.
The MTA's capital plan sets aside $2.5 million to acquire property for a K-9 Unit facility. The agency hoped to buy the land by last December, but postponed its deadline until August while it searches for a parcel of at least five acres, said MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan.
The MTA has no specific leads on a property, Donovan said. Officials are hunting for a space within the K-9 Unit's 5,000-square-mile territory, but they won't rule out a space well outside the city “if it was appropriate,” he said.
Meanwhile, O'Flaherty his officers and their dogs stay focused. “[Criminals] only have to be right once. We have to be right every time,” he said.