New Paw-lice Officer to Join UMBPD in June

May 09, 2019

The University of Maryland, Baltimore Police Department (UMBPD) is getting ready to welcome a new four-legged officer to the team. In June, the department will debut its first resident comfort dog, joining the ranks of only two other university police departments in the nation.

“I’m very excited about this program and can’t wait for our campus community to experience this,” says UMB Police Chief Alice Cary, MS. “I believe a comfort dog is a valuable tool in fostering dialogue between the police department and the community we serve.” 

Comfort dogs are trained to provide stress relief and affection to people dealing with anxiety, depression, trauma, or mental illness. Many schools ranging from elementary to graduate have adopted a comfort dog program in which canine volunteers work with students who need a break from the pressures of school — usually during exam weeks. Comfort dog programs also have been incorporated in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and disaster areas to help people dealing with trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and mental or physical illnesses.

Considering all of the health benefits a comfort dog could bring to UMB, thought it was an obvious addition to the UMBPD. She envisions the dog becoming yet another foundational tool that her officers can use to connect with members of the neighboring West Baltimore community. 

“Mental health and well-being are extremely important for everyone,” Cary says. “Our dog will be a great community policing tool to help break barriers at all levels. It will help calm people during and after a crisis and help to de-stress our community members and even our own police officers.”

Each comfort dog is accompanied by a handler companion. In this case, the UMBPD needed to select an officer to undergo training to become the dog’s official partner in the department. Cary was proud to hand the leash over to Pfc. Kelli Blackwell.

“I was truly speechless when I was offered the job!” Blackwell says. “My mind was racing thinking about the possibilities on how I could utilize the dog to help benefit the department and the surrounding community. I felt like this position was made for me, both personally and professionally.”

Blackwell is already heavily involved in community outreach and engagement. Over the last two years she has built positive relationships with the children, parents, and teachers in the West Baltimore community through her involvement in the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and PAL (Police Athletic/Activities League) programs.

“These relationships that I have already built will only continue to grow with my new position,” Blackwell says. “I feel like the dog will bring a different level of comfort to those in the community, a comfort that sometimes words can't explain.”

The new K-9 officer may not be joining the ranks until June, but Blackwell has a long road ahead of her to prepare for the pup’s arrival. She recently went through a weeklong Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) at the Baltimore County Police Department. The training focuses on how to help people who are in crisis and those who are dealing with a mental illness. It also teaches how a comfort dog can promote self-care amongst police officers. CIT is an integral part of becoming a K-9 handling police officer, as the bulk of the officer’s duties will involve providing comfort to people of all backgrounds who are going through a rough time.

“Thanks to this training, Pfc. Blackwell will be able to contribute to the emotional and psychosocial well-being of people on and around our campus,” explains Lt. Matthew Johnson, who heads UMBPD’s community outreach unit. “She and the comfort dog will be able to help students and staff cope with the stresses of excelling in advanced academia, and they will also be able to help children who are experiencing trauma in our community.”

After CIT, Blackwell traveled to Greenfield, Mass., to train with and shadow Lt. William Gordon, the very first officer in the world to have a comfort dog in a police department. During her week with Lt. Gordon, she worked alongside his two K-9 officers, Donut and Clarence. They traveled to several schools providing comfort to students struggling with a number of issues ranging from the loss of a classmate to the stress and anxiety of mid-term exams.

Blackwell’s next leg of training took her to Florida, where she finally met her K-9 officer companion. They spent some time training together and getting to know each other before heading back to UMB for the pup’s premiere on the UMBPD.

While waiting for the dog’s arrival, the UMBPD turned  to the community to help pick a name for the pooch. Members of the UMB and West Baltimore community were able to vote on which name they want their comfort dog.

“The dog's name is a symbol of the community we serve,” Johnson says. “Baltimore residents, UMB students, staff, and faculty matter to our department, and it's imperative that they have a part in choosing who they see in times of crisis and around the campus community on a daily basis.” 

In the meantime, the UMBPD is waiting with anticipation to shake the paw of its new officer.

“I am super excited about this comfort dog program and so very grateful to be under a chief who is progressive in her thinking and serving the community,” says Blackwell. “Community relationships are so very important when it comes to policing, and I believe that this program will benefit both the campus community and the West Baltimore community in which we serve.”

Update: Voting on the name of the UMBPD comfort dog closed on June 10, 20119. The UMBPD is proud to welcome its new four-legged recruit, Lexi!

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