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Published March 26 2012

Drug-sniffing dog to run checks in Fargo public housing

FARGO – Tenants of at least five public housing buildings here can expect a furry visitor in a few weeks: Earl the drug detection dog.

For the first time, the Fargo Housing and Redevelopment Authority plans to have the dog sniff for illegal drugs during a “non-intrusive” search of the buildings’ hallways, according to a letter dated March 16 and sent to tenants of about 500 units.

If the dog smells drugs, or “hits,” on a specific door, Fargo police may request a warrant to search that unit.

Executive Director Lynn Fundingsland said that in each building, the tenants and/or the FHRA’s property manager requested the search because of reports of drug use and drug dealing in the buildings.

“We’ve got kind of a vulnerable population, so we see it as kind of a safety issue for them,” he said.

The decision arose from a situation in which a methamphetamine user was becoming violent and beating up people in the 22-unit SRO building, a subsidized single-room occupancy building at 69 4th St. N. The user reportedly put one tenant in the hospital and ran off three others before the FHRA became aware of it and evicted him, Fundingsland said.

FHRA tenants, many of whom are older, disabled or low-income, often are afraid to report suspected drug use because they fear retribution, he said.

“Ideally, some tenant would just say, ‘My next-door neighbor’s dealing,’ but we don’t get it that direct,” he said.

In addition to the search planned at the SRO building, Fundingsland said the dog was requested by resident councils at the 98-unit New Horizons Manor at 2525 Broadway and the 42-unit Cooper House Apartments at 414 11th St. N., a transitional housing facility for people coming out of homelessness.

Planned searches at the 60-unit Graver Inn Apartments at 123 Roberts St. N. and the 30-unit Burrel Apartments at 409 4th St. N. were prompted by concerns reported by tenants, managers and social services, Fundingsland said.

Residents of the 249-unit Lashkowitz High Rise at 101 2nd St. S. also received the letter, but it was sent prematurely because the FHRA has yet to meet with the building’s resident council about the idea, Fundingsland said.

“I suspect we will” search the high rise, he said.

In an editorial in Thursday’s High Plains Reader, John Strand, co-owner of the newspaper, urged the FHRA to reconsider the searches “and to not go down this slippery slope.” Strand, a Fargo School Board member, wrote that “there needs to be a balance between public safety and privacy protections.”

Strand made some good points, Fundingsland said.

“If there was another way to get at the problem that was less intrusive, we would do that,” he said. “We’re certainly open to that.”

However, Fundingsland, who was attending a conference Monday with other housing authority directors from across the nation, also said the practice isn’t uncommon.

Fargo police dogs are routinely used for drug sweeps in public schools when requested by school administrators and also at hotels and apartments based on tips from tenants and managers or intelligence gathered during investigations, Deputy Chief Pat Claus said.

Police haven’t been asked by private property managers to sweep entire buildings, but some have made it clear K-9 units are always welcome, Claus said.

Sitting on the stoop in front of the Burrel Apartments, tenant David Peterson said he’s in favor of the drug-dog searches.

“(It) don’t bother me,” he said, adding the building’s biggest problem is late-night drinkers sitting on the stoop.

George Granados, who has lived at Lashkowitz High Rise for more than two years, said he thinks it’s a good idea.

“It’s good to have a dog come by to check it out, just in case there is something,” he said.

“Yeah, it goes on,” Lashkowitz resident Alanna Burdi said of drug activity in the high rise, which serves the disabled and those 55 and older. Burdi rolled her eyes when asked if she had privacy concerns.

“Doesn’t bother me at all,” she said. “My pot-smokin’ days are long gone.”

However, while she thinks it’s a good idea, Burdi said the search “won’t do any good. If you’re going to warn them, don’t bother.”

Fundingsland said residents will receive a day’s notice before the first search, which he expects to happen in two to three weeks. Possible future searches may be unannounced, he said.


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