When Buffalo Police K9 Officer Craig Lehner died in a training accident in the Niagara River last October, the question remained who would become the handler for his four-legged partner, Shield. At a special graduation ceremony for the K9 Unit’s newest teams, that question was answered.
The five year old German Shephard known as Shield laid obediently as the K9 Unit Commander, Lieutenant Salvatore Losi, talked about his the dog’s new partner’s background.
“Matthew Richards is a 10-year veteran of the Buffalo Police Department. Prior to his appointment to the BPD, Officer Richards spent four years of active duty in the U.S. Army, serving in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom,” said Losi.
Richards has been on the wait list for the K9 Unit for close to four years. Two officers preceded him as candidates for Shield, but none connected with the dog like he did.
“Matt’s a great trainer, a good candidate, and the dog really loves him a lot,” said fellow K9 Handler John Kujawa. “It’s nice to see him bonded with somebody again, because that was really tough.”
Kujawa was on scene the day Shield’s previous partner, Lieutenant Craig Lehner, went missing and died in the Niagara River during a training exercise with the department’s Underwater Recovery Team. Kujawa and Lehner were the first two members of the BPD to serve simultaneously in both the K9 Unit and the URT.
Richards and Shield trained for 15 weeks alongside Officer Jared Domaracki and his dog, Lehner, and Officer Stephen Mikac and his dog, Hydro. They completed 15 weeks of intense training with the Niagara Regional Police, beginning with bonding exercises and ending with a mile-long certification course.
“All the dogs are trained as general patrol dogs, so they’re trained in tracking individuals, trained in open searches for people, building searches for people, article searches for anything discarded from a crime. They can search for missing people. They’re also trained in handler protection and to apprehend criminals. All three of these dogs are also cross-trained. Two of them are cross-trained in explosives detection, and one cross-trained in narcotics detection,” said Sergeant Scott Johnstone of the Niagara Regional Police Services, who oversees the training.
Because Buffalo’s K9 teams usually train with teams headed for Canadian law enforcement, their graduation ceremony upon completion of the course is normally held in Canada. But this season’s class was held exclusively for the BPD, and brought the responsibility for a graduation ceremony to the American side of the Border.
On Thursday afternoon, family and friends of the officers, along with the command staff of the department, honored the three teams in a ceremony that hasn’t been seen in Buffalo Police Headquarters for at least 20 years.
“It seems like it went over well,” said Losi. “Folks enjoyed coming to this. It’s a little more difficult to travel to Niagara Falls, Ontario to attend. In the future, we might consider doing a local ceremony here and also have the ceremony up there with the other dogs from Canada.”
The ceremony was a particularly emotional one, with Lehner’s family present. Kujawa presented Lehner’s mother Kathy with a framed shadow box containing the collar her son had purchased for Shield. He also gave her a framed rubbing of her son’s name from fallen officer memorials in the New York State and Washington, D.C.
Richards was a member of the same academy class as Lehner and said he’s excited to continue his colleague’s legacy of working with Shield.
“I just can’t wait to get to work,” said Richards.
“We’ll be hitting the streets Friday with the dogs, and keeping it going with what Craig started. And hopefully Shield will have a nice career with the department and be able to retire and be happy with life after that.”
Domaracki’s dog is named in memory of Lieutenant Lehner, and was purchased with funds raised by the Buffalo community. Mikac’s dog is named in tribute to Officer James Duffy who retired from the K9 Unit in December 2017, and was donated by George H. Hyde, Jr., President of the Hyde Foundation.