Crime & Courts

Columbia police dog died after being left in vehicle for eight hours

The Columbia Police Department said Thursday that a police dog that died in July had been left in a police vehicle for eight hours.

“I guess the simplest way for me to start is to acknowledge that we made some mistakes,” Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said at a Thursday afternoon news conference.

The dog, named Turbo, was a 2-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever who specialized in explosive detection. Turbo was with CPD for seven months. Master Police Officer David Hurt worked with the dog.

Hurt was at C.A. Johnson High School for active-shooter training, Holbrook said. The officer deactivated the K-9 unit vehicle’s heat alarm, which causes a siren and horn to go off as well as an on-person alarm when the temperature inside the vehicle reaches a certain level. Hurt had parked in the shade with the rear windows down and air conditioning on, according to Holbrook.

The dog was in the car from close to 7:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.

Other dogs were also in police vehicles during the training at the high school. Hurt asked another officer to check on Turbo close to 11:30. That officer reported back to Hurt that Turbo was fine at the time. But when Hurt returned to the vehicle at 3:30, he saw that his dog was panting heavily, foaming at the mouth and unsteady on his feet. He immediately recognized the signs of Turbo being overheated and called for help.

Holbrook called Hurt’s actions negligent and lacking common sense.

The Columbia Police Department announced Turbo’s death on July 28, saying the dog experienced a “heat-related work injury” two days prior. Holbrook said the dog experienced organ failure after being taken to a veterinarian and was euthanized.

Holbrook said Hurt “didn’t give any logical reason for why he deactivated the heat alarm.”

“Officer Hurt was very emotionally attached ... this is not something that just goes away. This is something he’ll live with.”

The officer will face no criminal charges, but he has been removed as a K-9 officer, suspended from the bomb squad for six months and suspended with no pay for five days.

Holbrook says the review determined there was no criminal intent. Information from the investigation was shared with the State Law Enforcement Division and the 5th Circuit solicitor’s office.

The department called Turbo a “beloved K-9” and said his passing caused “tremendous sadness.”

The CPD will implement changes to try to ensure that a police dog never suffers the same fate as Turbo. Those changes include:

  • Never deactivating the heat alarm in a K-9 vehicle.
  • Creating a standard temperature for the heat alarm in K-9 vehicles.
  • Requiring hourly checks on dogs if they are left in a vehicle.

To get Turbo on the force and trained cost the CPD nearly $25,000, Holbrook said.

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Eddie O’Cain is the interim director of Humane Society of South Carolina. Before taking his current position, he was an investigator with his organization looking into animals’ deaths. Incidents of police dogs perishing from heat-related injuries are rarely reported to the S.C. Humane Society. When these cases occur, it’s usually related to the failure of air-flow systems on K-9 unit vehicles, O’Cain said. These air-flow systems are meant to stay on even as the vehicles are turned off. Deaths resulting from neglect of a police dog are extremely rare, O’Cain said.

“Most of the dogs live with the officers,” O’Cain said. “There’s a relationship. ... (The dog) is a partner they can rely on.”

Leaving pets, particularly dogs, in cars is one of the most prominent problems in South Carolina.

“That pet is going to get in distress even if you crack the windows,” O’Cain says. “It is very dangerous, and there’s been a lot of testing done on how fast the temperature rises, especially here. On a normal day in the 80s, it could rise well over 100” in the car.

While no specific law exists in South Carolina or Richland County dealing with animals being left in cars, it is considered cruelty to abandon an animal in a vehicle, T. Michael Boddie of the Island Packet of Hilton Head Island reported in June. Richland County will immediately respond to any calls of animals being left in cars, a county animal control official said. The city of Columbia, however, has an ordinance against leaving animals in vehicles.

“An animal control officer, or other law enforcement officer, will remove the animal by reasonable methods under the circumstances if the animal is reasonably believed to be in distress. Unattended animals left in vehicles shall be impounded,” the city ordinance reads.

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The South Carolina heat also makes it dangerous for animals to be tethered outside for extended periods of time, O’Cain says. The danger is made worse if the animal has no shelter or shade. The Humane Society frequently gets calls during the summer about animals chained in the heat and stuck in hot cars.

The Island Packet reported on the humane society’s list of signs to look for in an overheated pet:

  • heavy panting.
  • glazed eyes.
  • rapid pulse.
  • unsteadiness or staggering gait.
  • vomiting.
  • deep red or purple tongue.

If someone sees an animal chained in the heat or in a vehicle, they should call law enforcement as soon as they can, according to O’Cain. People should not break windows themselves or they could be charged with a crime, O’Cain says.

“(Law enforcement) can come out or animal control, and they can” investigate the situation, O’Cain said. “Or they can break the window and get the pet out. That keeps a private individual from breaking and entering a vehicle.”

O’Cain advised people to never leave a pet in a vehicle in South Carolina, no matter how short a stay the animal will have in the car and no matter the temperature. In Columbia, people should have fewer excuses for leaving their animals behind when going around town, O’Cain says.

“There are more options to be able to take your pet and have them with you, and that’s everything from grocery stores to restaurants and shopping malls,” according to O’Cain. “It has gotten a lot better, and that’s a positive for this area.”

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