NORMAL — Gunner and Barrett routinely put their lives on the line in their jobs with the Normal Police Department.
"They're both full service and are employed primarily for narcotics detection," said Jon Cleveland, a 12-year police department veteran and Barrett's handler. "They also do tracking for felonies and violent crimes and begin searches in burglaries."
Recently, for instance, the police dogs were taken to an area to search for two armed men who fled a robbery scene.
Cleveland and Gunner's handler, Shane Bachman, wear protective vests when they are on duty, but Gunner and Barrett have naked chests.
That's about to change.
The dogs are two of more than 350 police dogs nationwide that will receive protective body armor through Vested Interest in K9s Inc. and a Groupon grassroots fundraising campaign. The campaign raised more than $335,000 for bullet- and stab-proof vests specially designed for each dog.
"Obviously safety is the number one thing for us, not only for us but the dogs," said Bachman, a nine-year Normal officer. "They (the dogs) are very important to us. We refer to them as our kids."
Cleveland was at a training session when he heard about the opportunity to apply for the vests.
"We thought it was a great opportunity for us to protect our partners," he said.
The application included a description of the dogs and their duties: Barrett is a 5-year-old, 70-pound Belgian Malinois who has served with Cleveland for two years and specializes in narcotics detection, tracking and apprehension; Gunner is a 9-year-old, 85-pound Malinois who has served with Bachman for 6½ years, and has a variety of certifications from the Indiana State Police Training Academy.
Bachman and Cleveland went through about 200 hours of training with the dogs and also have yearly certifications and monthly training sessions. The police department purchased the dogs for about $12,000 each.
The dogs were selected to receive the vests, which cost about $950 each.
"It's cool to see people out there wanting to help us," said Cleveland.
The officers had to take pictures of the dogs and send their measurements to Vested Interest so the vests could be made to fit each dog. The vests aren't expected to arrive for about 10 weeks.
"They're just like our vests; they protect from the front, have a chest plate; are bullet proof and stab resistant," said Cleveland.
Each vest will be embroidered with "In Memory of K9 Rocco, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police."
Rocco died in January after being stabbed while on duty. The online campaign to raise money for vests sought donations of $10 per person.
Vested Interest is a nonprofit organization in East Taunton, Mass., that raises money through private and corporate sponsors to provide the vests and other items for dogs in law enforcement. The vests have a five-year warranty.
Bachman said being a K-9 officer is "very rewarding." A recently retired Normal Police Department dog, Rico, was credited with finding 398 kilos of cocaine in a traffic stop; uncovering 122 pounds of marijuana in another; and recovering $50,000 in a storage locker search.
Besides assisting officers, Bachman and Gunner and Cleveland and Barrett also do 20 to 30 demonstrations every year, including at day camps and at schools.
Bloomington Police Department has two dogs, Archie and Lex, and each has a donated vest, said spokeswoman Sara Mayer.
McLean County Sheriff's Department has one dog, Keej, who also has a donated vest, according to Sheriff Jon Sandage.
Cleveland said Duke, a dog working for El Paso Police Department, also received a protective vest from Vested Interest.