OCEAN CITY — In what appears to be a matter of miscommunication at best and negligence at worst, certain segments of the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) took their lumps in the court of public opinion this week after the resignation of a longtime K-9 officer over the alleged mishandling of a needed operation for his canine partner.
OCPD K-9 Officer Earl Campbell last week resigned his position after the department dragged its collective feet on approval to retire his partner, Charlie, in order to allow him to have the surgery he required. Campbell ultimately paid for the $6,000 surgery. For Campbell, the issue came down not to who should pay for the police dog’s operation, but why the animal was allowed to suffer for days before being turned over to his handler.
Charlie was originally injured back in May 2009 and required surgery to repair and replace slipped discs in his back. Charlie later returned to service with the department, but continued to have a limp. Scar from the original surgery was causing nerve damage in the animal’s back and it recently became evident a second surgery was needed.
On Nov. 10, Charlie was taken to the vet for evaluation of his growing problem with balance and coordination, and by Nov. 13, the condition worsened to the point, Campbell said, “he couldn’t even go up steps, so we had to pick him up and carry him outside.”
By Nov. 28, Charlie was in severe pain, and Campbell knew it was time to alleviate his suffering, but he wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed. If the dog wasn’t officially retired by the department, he remained town property and Campbell felt he could not have the surgery done because the dog did not technically belong to him.
If Charlie was officially retired by the department, he technically became Campbell’s property and he could pay for the $6,000 surgery out of his own pocket. According to Campbell, because the department in general and Lieutenant Scott Kirkpatrick specifically were slow officially retire the dog, Charlie continued to suffer needlessly for several days.
“I knew then I was going to have to get Charlie retired in order to get the surgery done, but they wouldn’t retire the dog for days because of a hold-up on getting the letter from the vet,” said Campbell. “I told them, ‘if you retire him, I’ll pay for the surgery, but we need you to make a decision.’ Kirkpatrick told me the Mayor and Council was making him jump through hoops over the letter from the vet, but finally, I couldn’t wait any longer.”
Ultimately, it was Chief Bernadette DiPino’s call to officially retire Charlie and allow Campbell to proceed with surgery at his own expense and the council had no oversight on the issue, despite Kirkpatrick’s alleged claim the elected officials were holding up the retirement over the official letter from the vet. Campbell said he spoke with several council members who had no idea about the situation until after Charlie was officially retired and had the operation.
“I spoke with council members and I have no doubt they didn’t have clue about this until after Dec. 5 when Charlie was officially retired,” said Campbell. “Kirkpatrick was either lying about the council’s involvement, or he assumed he needed their approval, but either way, it was just wrong.”
Mayor Rick Meehan confirmed retiring a police animal does not fall under the elected officials’ purview and denied the council had any inclination about the situation until after the fact.
“Retiring a police dog to his handler is not a decision made by the Mayor and Council,” he said. “There is a form requesting the retirement that needs to go in the file at some point that’s turned over to and approved by the chief. My understanding is, when that form was presented to the chief on Dec. 5, she immediately agreed to retire the dog. It didn’t come to light until shortly after the chief got back and she let me know about Earl’s letter of resignation.”
OCPD Public Information Officer Mike Levy this week confirmed the protocol.
“The chief needed to approve the retirement of the dog,” he said. “After the delays in the paperwork, and with the chief out of town testifying in a civil suit against the department, she immediately retired Charlie without hesitation once she became aware of the situation.”
Campbell said as Charlie’s condition worsened, conditions at home became increasingly unbearable. Campbell has three daughters and the entire family was extremely attached to Charlie, who had become as much a member of the family as a working police dog. In the last few days before Charlie was ultimately retired and received his needed operation, the dog’s condition worsened to the point Campbell considered just putting him to sleep rather than to see him suffer for lack of the letter from the vet.
“I told Kirkpatrick if he was not going to make a decision, I’m going to put him to sleep,” he said. “I couldn’t continue to let Charlie go through this, and I can’t let my daughters go through this. The dog was screaming in pain. On that Sunday night before they officially retired Charlie, here I am, a 36-year-old man and a cop, crying on the floor with this dog.”
Finally, on Dec. 5, DiPino, who ironically had been in Baltimore much of the week before testifying in a wrongful termination case against the department, officially retired Charlie, turning over ownership of the dog to Campbell, and plans for the surgery were set in motion. Even after that, last-minute technicalities delayed the operation, which was to take place in Vienna, Va.
Campbell said he was on his way to police headquarters in the Public Safety Building and reached Route 90 at Route 113 when he was informed by text he would need to bring Charlie’s Maryland Police K-9 license in order to take possession of the dog. He then had to turn around and go back home to look for the document, which he hadn’t seen or touched in several years.
“I said, ‘are you serious, I have to drive back and find this piece of paper?’” he said. “After the whole letter from the vet issue and now this K-9 license issue, I was getting very upset and angry about a piece of paper, while the dog continued to suffer.”
Ultimately, Campbell did take possession of Charlie, but before he left the Public Safety Building to take the dog to surgery, he decided to tender his resignation over the alleged mishandling of the situation.
“I got in the car and immediately wrote out my resignation in an email and sent it before we left the parking lot,” he said. “I lost my job over this and I would do it again.”
Charlie ultimately had the surgery and is on the mend, according to Campbell, and is enjoying retired life. However, the happy ending for Charlie was just the beginning of a firestorm engulfing the department over the last week or so. Campbell’s story went public and officers past and present weighed in on the issue of Charlie specifically and conditions in the department in general on the Internet.
Allegations of intimidation, fear and corruption within the OCPD swirled all week in the court of public opinion, albeit in the often unsubstantiated and unconfirmed blog and Facebook mediums.
“I guess I’ve become the cover boy for this and I lost my job over it, but it was never about the money,” said Campbell. “This whole thing is symptomatic of other problems within the department and it should never happen again.”
Campbell said he couldn’t comment on the other allegations that swirled this week in the wake of the Charlie situation, but acknowledged there is a clear divide within the OCPD.
“There is absolutely a morale issue at best,” he said. “If you asked 100 officers, almost every one would tell you the same thing.”
Campbell is calling for a review of the protocol surrounding the K-9 program and the treatment and handling of the other police animals, including the mounted unit horses.
“This is not the end of something, this is the beginning of something,” he said. “I’m not in the department anymore, but I am going to continue to fight to ensure this never happens again.”
Much of Campbell’s vitriol was directed at Kirkpatrick, his former immediate supervisor and supervisor the K-9 program. Campbell criticized the lieutenant for his handling of Charlie’s case and his “tyrannical” handling of the officers under his watch in general.
“Lieutenant Kirkpatrick is attached to the chief at the hip and whatever he does, he’s untouchable,” he said. “There’s no accountability with him. He single-handedly brought the K-9 unit down to the point they had to hire an outside agency from P.G. County to come in and evaluate and fix what was wrong with our K-9 unit.”
Campbell said there was an internal investigation into the K-9 unit that went on for a year-and-a-half during which all of the seven individual K-9 handlers, which incidentally has now dropped to two, testified.
“We were told if we complied with the internal investigation, we wouldn’t have to deal with Kirkpatrick again,” said Campbell. “It was taken away from him at the time, but somehow, he was put back in charge of it again this summer. If another officer had been in charge, this situation with Charlie would never have happened. … He needs to be taken out of there because he is a virus in that department. Otherwise, it’s a great place to work, I loved my job and I was a cop’s cop.”
Levy said when Campbell tendered his resignation, it became a personnel matter and the department was not at liberty to discuss the particulars of some of Campbell’s allegations.
“The chief has an open door policy and the officers and everyone in this department is encouraged to go to her directly if and when they have problems,” he said. “You’ll always have people in any organization that aren’t 100-percent satisfied all the time and I’m certain we have people in this department that aren’t happy all the time, but there are channels and procedures in place to address issues and concerns.”
In terms of the other allegations that came to light in the wake of the Charlie situation, Meehan said they would be looked into if they were substantiated.
“There are a lot of allegations out there, and if any of those allegations relevant to the police department can be verified, they will be looked into,” he said.