After 23 years of service Rice Lake Police Department K9 dog program is being discontinued.
Rice Lake City Council made the decision official with a 6-2 vote Aug. 25, 2 months after voting to fill the position after the previous K9 handler left the department.
"I want to continue the program," said police chief Steve Roux. "But at this time we don't have anyone who is interested in taking on the responsibility and commitment."
Roux himself was a Rice Lake K9 handler for several years.
"It's the funnest job and most rewarding job I've had in my life," said Roux. "But very physically and mentally demanding."
One applicant for the position had begun K9 handler training. But that officer submitted a letter Aug. 10 declining the position, citing limited law enforcement experience (less than 1 year) and a lack of housing options in the Rice Lake area.
The job was re-posted, but Roux said there were no further applications. He said the lack of interest was unsurprising.
"Any time we've had a vacancy in the unit, we've had two or less applicants for the position," said Roux.
The department's last handler, Josh Eckes, submitted his resignation as of June 2 after 4 years in the department.
Cuff, the department's K9, has since been cared for by Roux and other officers. The dog will be sold to another department.
"Cuff has a good nose. He really is high energy and he needs to continue to serve in that capacity," said Roux.
Eckes apparently expressed interest in keeping the dog. An online petition to allow him to do so has gathered nearly 1,000 signatures. But the RLPD denied the request.
Cuff was brought to the U.S. from Hungary. He was handpicked at a Florida location for the RLPD by trainer Jason Brodt, head trainer for the St. Paul K9 training facility. Eckes began working with Cuff in January of 2018.
Several Council members expressed disappointment that Rice Lake would no longer have a K9.
Alderman Mark O'Brien, a former police officer, said, "Knowing you had that dog on the shift—you always feel good—but (a K9) made you feet a little bit better."
O'Brien and Harlan Dodge voted against the motion to discontinue the K9 unit.
Roux said there would always be a possibility of reinstating a K9, albeit with some hurdles to clear.
"It's great for any law enforcement agency to have," said Roux. "For public relations and community building it's huge, especially in our community."
Over the years Rice Lake has had five K9s—Reggie, Morgon, Robbie, Copper and Cuff—and five handlers—Mike Nelson, Roux, Mike Carroll, Derek Olson and Eckes.
Currently, the Barron Police Department has a K9 unit and the Barron County Sheriff's Department has two.
The residents of Rice Lake are in good hands, thanks to a group of guys who meet behind Hardee's every morning between 8 and 10 a.m.
They swing through the drive-thru to get their coffee, sometimes even a pie or cookie, then head to the back of the parking lot, set up a chair and see who shows up.
Normally it's the same 10 or 12. No women have yet joined their ranks. Most customers who go through the drive-thru wave a hand (with all their fingers, they clarify) smile or say hello.
One woman tried to get a donation from them for the local Paste, Paper, Pencils Program, offering to sell them pies, with the money used for school supplies.
They might look like a formidable bunch, but after getting their caffeine fix they are usually pretty sociable.
Hardee's manager Ed Barnes confirmed that they are not ramble rousers, and they never leave any cups or packaging on the ground.
"They're very respectful, and they're a really good bunch of guys," he said. He even knows whose vehicles are whose because they are so reliable in what they drive and where they park.
One of Tuesday morning's topics was President Trump's visit that day to Kenosha. None of them thought his presence would put out the blaze of unrest in that city.
Besides politics, other topics of discussion are the postal service, weather, fishing, sports, health concerns and the virus.
If they have more to say and time to get away, some of them return in the afternoon for another gab session from 2:30-3:30 p.m., which coincides with their afternoon coffee.
If it's raining, they head to the pavilion at Moon Lake Park.
They say they are not opposed to wearing masks, and all of them have them close at hand. But they prefer "shooting the breeze" socially-distanced in the outdoors without masks.
"They have remained determined to get together just as they all did prior to coronavirus," the restaurant manager said. "They're very loyal."
He added, "They're hoping by the time it gets cooler, the dining room will be back open."
In the meantime, the gang can be found out back, unnoticed by many who cruise down Main Street, keeping an eye on the restaurant, their drive-thru customers and the south side of the city.