What to do with Nadia: Canine officer subject of debate after handler leaves Vicksburg PD

Published 10:51 pm Thursday, April 25, 2024

The question of what should come next for a canine belonging to Vicksburg Police Department (VPD)  following the resignation of her longtime handler has become the subject of debate on social media in recent weeks. 

While the majority of public comments have been in favor of Nadia – a Belgian malinois trained for narcotics work – being able to “retire” and continue living with former VPD Investigator Matt Barnes, VPD leadership has denied the request, citing age, cost, and other factors as reasons the canine should remain in service of the police department.

During a press conference held Monday, VPD Chief of Police Penny Jones laid out her reasons for denying Barnes’ request to keep Nadia following his resignation from the department on April 5.

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“This is such a delicate situation,” Jones said. “Nadia is six years old, soon to be seven. She still has a lot of work in her.”

Jones, along with canine officer and VPD Sgt. Donnie Heggins, said the average retirement age for a canine is between eight and 12.

Barnes, who worked for VPD for almost eight years, said five of those years were spent as Nadia’s handler, a relationship Jones said included the canine officer living with Barnes and his family. Despite that long standing relationship, Jones said a human officer and a canine officer must both be in the appropriate retirement situation for the handler to retain the dog following service.

“I wouldn’t have had an issue with that,” Jones said. “Officer Barnes resigned; he didn’t retire. Nadia still has a lot of life in her and plenty she can still do at the VPD. The dog’s main purpose is to work. And this dog is not grieving. The dog just wants to work.”

Jones said her denial of the request for Barnes to retain Nadia was an administrative decision and did not reflect any ill will on the part of the department toward the former officer, but rather was based on factors such as the age of the canine, her ability to continue service, and cost involved in acquiring and training such service animals.

Heggins said police officer canines can cost between $20,000 and $30,000 per dog for acquisition and training alone.

While Barnes has offered to compensate VPD for Nadia, in exchange for her release from service, Jones said there are other factors to consider.

“There’s more to it,” Jones said. “This is in the best interest of Nadia; Nadia needed to stay here. You can’t put a dollar amount on Nadia. I certainly want this officer and his family to be happy, but Nadia belongs to the Vicksburg Police Department.”

Heggins said he too sympathizes with Barnes’ situation, but reiterated that the circumstances simply didn’t line up for Nadia’s retirement to coincide with her handler’s resignation.

“Me being a canine handler, I understand how everyone is feeling,” Heggins said. “I’ve been on both ends. I’ve worked with canines that were given to another department. I lost a dog in the line of duty. But, on the other hand, Nadia is only six.”

While Jones also laid out hypothetical situations, including the dangers of releasing a police-trained animal into the public too early, Barnes himself said the situation feels personal.

“In a sense it seems like more of a vendetta that I left,” he said, and pointed toward his years of service with Nadia as a relationship that won’t be able to be replicated with another VPD officer.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me that there isn’t another canine officer that can take my partner and wouldn’t have to go through school again. We’re looking at, it takes anywhere from six-to-eight weeks to get certified. There’s also a bonding period. I had a bonding period of three weeks to a month with Nadia before I actually went to canine school and you’re looking at several months now before she would even be certified to use with anybody.”

Barnes also said there have been discrepancies in Nadia’s reported age; however, Jones said the canine was born in October of 2017 and her age is not in doubt.

Jones said three other VPD officers are trained to handle canines, although the department has not yet made a final decision as to Nadia’s new assigned handler.

Deputy Chief of Policy for Homicide and Gangs Troy Kimble said the amount of qualified officers is a non-issue, as training for canines is done as it is needed.

“He wasn’t trained as a canine handler prior to receiving Nadia,” Kimble said of Barnes. “So it would be the same process. I think where we are getting the heart strings pulled here is we have a living, breathing animal that we are taking care of here, but this is also a tool of the Vicksburg Police Department. This canine officer is still available for the department and is still cleared to work for the department.”

Barnes said he feels his bond with Nadia qualifies him to speak to her ability to continue adequate service to the department.

“They get stressed out when they are switching from handler to handler,” he said. “She probably would be able to work with somebody else. But, the situation is, I had Nadia for five years. Even if another officer were to obtain her, they would not have another five years with her. It’s not possible and so, what you’re looking at now is that the canine would be either too weak or would age out before it had that kind of bond that I have had with her and my family.”

A complete video of Jones’ public remarks from Monday may be found on The Vicksburg Post’s Facebook page.