New Jersey police departments equip their officers with bulletproof vests, but often, they’re unable to afford to give the same kind of protection to their K9 units.

A Central Jersey group is on a mission to make sure the dogs get the body armor they need to keep them safe.

“The average K9 bullet proof vest costs just under $1,000 dollars and until recently the need for a bullet proof vest in K9 units wasn’t always brought to light because K9s weren’t being lost in the line of duty. But over the last 10, years that’s changed,” said Michael Lucchesi, a Trenton police officer and president of the Capital K-9 Association. “Deaths for K9s has increased significantly, so the need for vests has become more prominent.”

He said while there are police departments in New Jersey that can afford to buy body armor for their police dogs, “some departments still struggle financially just to keep the K9 unit going is an expense in itself, so we do whatever we can to raise funds to get the K9 dogs their vests.”

Lucchesi said the Association was formed in 2011 because the city of Trenton could not afford to pay for such protective body armor.

He said a  fundraiser was held, and made enough money to get bulletproof vests for half of Trenton’s K9 force. The city then agreed to pay for the remainder of the vests that were needed.

“From that point on things just kind of snowballed,” he said. “We’ve been spreading the word on social media and doing many different types of events to raise money and awareness about this issue.”

Lucchesi said the cost to get and then train a police dog is between $6,000 and $10,000, and it takes almost six months to get a dog completely ready for his or her new responsibilities.

“Throughout the 24 weeks of training the dog is taught agility, obedience, taught to bite, taught to release, and also taught to sniff out narcotics, sniff out explosives,” he said. “Also how to do crowd control, searching, and other jobs, so vests are extremely important because there is now a great deal of money and time invested in not only the handler, but the dog as well.

“I’m sure you’re aware of what’s going on in the world when it comes to police right now, law enforcement is in the spotlight and we are a lot of people’s crosshairs, and that too includes police K-9s. To date, eight K9s have been killed in the line of duty in 2016.”

He said police dogs are playing an increasing role in communities all over Jersey, and most people have no idea “how many Alzheimer’s patients dogs have been able to track and locate, how many missing children dogs have been able to track and locate and apprehend, or the amount of narcotics, explosives and other weapons these dogs can sniff out and take off the street. We’re trying to increase awareness about K9’s and teach people how important they are."

Since coming into existence, the Capital K-9 Association has been able to buy 58 vests for police dogs.

He said “just like the officer goes out and risks his life everyday and wears his bulletproof vest the K-9 does that as well and our goal is to make sure the K-9 comes home to his or her family.”

More information about the association is available on its website, on Facebook, on Twitter and on Instagram.

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