Thousands of people have united behind a Martinsburg family after a policy change that would remove a police dog from his long time handler.

For the past four years, Sgt. Craig Phelps has handled Argos, a Beligian Malinois Shepherd. But that all changed Saturday.

Martinsburg Police Department announced on April 23 that the department will no longer allow supervisors on staff to be canine handlers. The dog is set to be reassigned by May 1.

Phelps, who became a canine handler in 2005, was a supervisor when he took on the additional responsibilities. Supporters say Phelps even declined a promotion last November so he could continue to work with Argos.

Sgt. Craig Phelps with the dog, Argos

Sgt. Craig Phelps with the dog, Argos

Police Chief Maury Richards told WeHeartWV Monday he’s in the process of taking applications for the new canine officer and may be ready to announce on Thursday who’s been selected.

So far, however, more than 3,500 people have signed an online petition calling for the dog to remain with Phelps.

Taking Their Case To The Streets—And The Sky

Family members and friends manned a tent downtown Martinsburg on Monday; a visible spot that drew honks from drivers throughout the day and more petition signatures.

And just before sunset, they set their sights on a higher power: Supporters wrote messages on balloons before releasing them. A nun from St. Joseph Catholic Church prayed with the crow before the balloons were released.

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With tears streaming down her face, Phelp’s wife Melonie vowed to keep going. “Argos can’t speak for himself, so we are doing that and I’m not going to stop until there is justice for him,” she said.

Their son, Grayson Phelps, had no trouble deciding what to pen on his balloon, “Let him come home.” “He’s part of our family, and I just can’t imagine life without him,” he said.

Kimberlee Kesner-Griffin, who organized the downtown event, said she believes the dog will also suffer if removed from the only handler, family and home he’s known.

“Argos is more than a dog, he’s an important member of the department and should be treated with the respect he deserves,” she said.

Police Chief Richards Says It’s About One Person Doing Two Jobs

Richards said he took six months to make this decision and isn’t reconsidering changing it or grandfathering Phelps and Argos.

“We are now faced with an incredible heroin problem, but in terms of enforcement our drug service canine in the last year we got less than a gram of heroin recovered and that’s just not going to work in the situation we are in,” he said.

“We need a canine officer where that is going to be that officer’s sole focus – to use that canine proactively, not just on drug interdictions but also in terms of working with the community as well,” he said.

“It just hasn’t worked to have just one person who has to focus on being a great supervisor, and also a great canine handler,” he said.

There’s also been some misinformation because some people believe the dog is being removed—leaving the department without a drug dog.

“There has been a huge amount of misinformation going around because some people believe we won’t have a canine at all. But we are already in the middle of the application process, and by Thursday we will be able to make an announcement,” he said.

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