A recent decision to separate a corrections officer from his K9 partner has sparked outrage in the law enforcement community.
Corrections Canine Officer Bernie Henninger and his K9 partner Rogue intervened in a staff assault at the Rush City prison on May 14, 2022.
Nearly one year later, Commissioner of Corrections Paul Schnell deemed the incident an excessive use of force and labeled it a “bad bite,” according to a petition started by Henninger’s union.
As a result, Rogue was removed from Henninger’s home and Henninger was demoted, the petition says.
Former corrections officers spoke out against the decision to remove Rogue from Henninger’s home, calling it unjust and inhumane.
“These inmates take you to the edge almost every day and they don’t go over that edge because of those dogs. People’s lives are at stake. We deal with people that can kill you and try to,” former K9 officer and trainer of 24 years Rick Jennings told Alpha News.
It’s not just about bringing the dog home; it’s about giving Henninger his job back, Jennings said. He explained that Rogue and Henninger were one of two K9 pairs at Rush City.
“Taking a good handler out is a travesty,” he continued. He said it was a dangerous decision to remove them from an institution that has staff assaults on a regular basis.
“I believe, in the context of the situation, Henninger was warning the inmate that further behavior could result in the inmate being apprehended by the police dog. I used to tell people that all the time. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to warn them,” Jennings said. “That’s what the dogs are for.”
He told Alpha News that he personally worked with Henninger. “This guy is a good guy. I think he makes good decisions. He was a good trainer with his dog,” Jennings said.
He explained that following a bite incident, an after-bite review is conducted. He said the longest he’d ever seen that process take is two months and in order for Henninger and Rogue to continue working, the review would have to conclude that the actions of the handler were within the department’s use of force policy.
The Change.org petition has received more than 3,000 signatures over the course of three days. The petition questions why Rogue and Henninger were allowed to work together within the facility for nearly a year if they posed a danger to others.
A DOC source who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation said it is crucial that Commissioner Schnell hears the public’s disappointment and understands the urgent need to reverse this decision. The welfare of both CCO Henninger and Rogue depends on prompt action and a commitment to prioritizing staff safety, the source said.
The DOC source argued that policies governing the use of K9s in correctional facilities are notably restrictive, differing substantially from those applicable to law enforcement officers in the field.
“There is a growing fear that, without intervention, it is only a matter of time before another officer becomes a victim in a preventable incident,” the DOC source said.
Russ Hanes is the founder of the Invisible Wounds Project, which provides therapy and wellness support to law enforcement officers. He spent 17 years in public safety, working as a corrections officer, police officer, and dispatcher.
“This is very abnormal. It’s not at all a normal part of the procedure. It’s a punitive thing,” he said. “The officer in question has nothing on his record as far as discipline. It’s a pretty drastic move considering that there was a physical staff assault in progress.”
Hanes claimed that DOC leaders are “getting as soft as possible on inmates” and “taking a lot of power away from officers.”
“That’s why staff assaults are up because inmates don’t have anything to fear,” he said. “I think the DOC cares more about the inmates than it does the officers’ safety.”
Communications director Andy Skoogman told Alpha News that DOC takes the safety of everyone in its facilities seriously.
“We received a complaint against a K-9 officer which was investigated by the Department of Corrections’ Office of Professional Accountability. The investigation is complete. The dog has been removed from service with the DOC,” he said.
Skoogman told Alpha News that state law prohibits him from providing any additional details on the case at this time.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 also released a statement that called on DOC to reverse its decision.
“Our union, AFSCME Council 5, supports K9 Rogue’s return to the Henninger family, and their separation disrupts the strong bond they all share. We believe it is crucial for our union brothers and sisters to continue to stand together and support Brother Henninger, Rogue, and his family. This decision to remove Rogue from the Henningers’ home needs to be reversed and reunite this loving and caring family,” said Executive Director Julie Bleyhl.
“And it is imperative that K9s remain a critical component in providing safety inside our secure facilities,” she added.
The incident comes amid a string of assaults on officers inside Minnesota’s correctional facilities, including several at Rush City.