On Saturday night, New Haven residents turned out in force to celebrate New Haven's newest four-legged officers: Nia and Orvis.
The two canines -- the city's newest narcotics dogs -- will soon be trained to sniff out illicit substances and accompany officers on patrol. The celebration, held at Christopher Martin's Restaurant on State Street, was sponsored by the SoHu Block Watch Association and had well over 150 visitors who paid $15 in support of the K-9 Unit. Local and federal officials also turned out in support, but the use of police dogs remained a source of controversy for some in the community.
The restaurant was teeming with people at 10:30 p.m., the music blaring, drinks flowing. And throughout the night, attendees bought raffle tickets for a variety of products from local businesses, including foods, drinks -- and dog biscuits.
SoHu Block Watch Association President Lisa Siedlarz was happy with the turnout and the level of enthusiasm.
"It's great to have so many people come out and support a good cause," she said. "It's a good sign for the community."
Among the more supportive attendees was Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who stayed for about 15 minutes expressing support for the K-9 Unit. The mayor was not exempt from the $15 entrance fee. Standing at the back of the restaurant with Nia, Detective Jodi Novella, one of the dog's handlers, said she was impressed with the turnout.
Also present to support the NHPD were two FBI agents from a local office, both of whom declined to give their names.
"I think the dogs are good for the Department," one said. "We work with them on narcotics, and this is a great tool."
Still, despite the public support of many city officials, some New Haven residents were concerned about what the narcotics dogs suggest about New Haven.
Community activist Barbara Fair thought the dogs meant a continued break with community-friendly policing.
"I'm totally disgusted," she said. "I would be ashamed if the community allows this."
Fair also pointed to NHPD Chief James Lewis' plan to put rifles in most patrol cars as a similar mistake.
"It would turn our community into a war zone," she said. "I have never seen the need for dogs or guns in our community."
But Police Chief Lewis defended both the narcotics dogs and rifles as smart policing tactics. For Lewis, the issue is not whether to have dogs, but where the dogs come from. Lewis pointed out that for now, the city gets its dogs from state authorities.
"[But] if we have our own dogs," he said, "then we know what the training program is, they're responsible to our community."
As for the rifles, Lewis acknowledged that while they could create controversy, he said he felt the officers desperately needed them.
"They may never use 'em," he said. "But the one time they need that rifle, everybody in this community will be glad they had it the one time they need it. So that to me is a no-brainer."
Once trained, Novella said, the dogs will be able to sniff all types of drugs and will ultimately conduct drug searches when officers execute warrants.
While the crowd was a large one, some had thoughts other than the K-9 unit on their minds. For Bill Croucher, 40, and his friend Joel Liseio, alcohol was the main attraction.
"We're just here to get drunk," said Croucher. "Really drunk," Liseio chimed in.
"I mean, I smoke pot," Croucher said within sight of the two K-9 detectives. "I don't really care about drug dogs."
Nia and Orvis are expected to see active service as soon as training is completed.
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