One department tells PEOPLE how they are working to prevent future deaths
A Georgia K9 officer at Savannah State University died earlier this month after his handler mistakenly left him in a hot car – the second such police dog death in the state this month and the fourth nationwide since mid-June.
Baston, a 7-year-old German shepherd, passed away on July 10 at his handler’s home in Rincon, Georgia, after being left in the car for three to four hours, according to police reports.
Authorities say that Baston was forgotten in the back seat of the car after his unidentified handler brought in food to his family at home. The handler then had dinner and fell asleep before realizing he left the K9 in the car. But by the time the handler reached the car, Baston was dead.
The windows had been rolled up and the engine was turned off. Baston was rushed inside and put into a cool bath – but it was too late. Weather reports show temperatures that day reached above 95 degrees.
Baston joined the SSU Police Department in 2010 and helped multiple local law enforcement agencies during his time on duty.
“The Savannah State University family is saddened by the loss of K9 officer Baston,” SSU said in a statement to PEOPLE. “He contributed significantly to the safety of all on the SSU campus for the past five years. Baston’s skills were also employed to assist surrounding law enforcement agencies and departments.”
Baston’s death comes within days of the death of another Georgia K9. Zane, a 5-year-old bloodhound with Conyers Police Department, was found dead on the afternoon of July 16 after being left in his handler’s car for about 10 hours, officials told PEOPLE.
Zane’s handler, Cpl. Jerahmy Williams, had come off a 12-hour shift and felt ill. Breaking his normal routine, he skipped the gym, went straight home and fell asleep, Conyers police spokesperson Kim Lucas said.
Williams discovered his mistake when he woke up, and he immediately called his supervisor, Lucas said. He was placed on paid leaving pending an investigation, but is “completely devastated,” she said.
“We fully believe this was a sheer accident,” she said.
There are no laws in Georgia that prevent officers from keeping their dogs in the car, according to WTOC. “A law like that would hinder dogs from being effective. They need to be able to be on a scene in minutes,” one handler told the station.
Lucas says it’s within department regulation to briefly leave a dog in a vehicle as long as it’s running – and vehicles such as Williams’ are equipped with additional safety measures while the ignition is on, which trigger if the car overheats.
Since mid-June, there have been two other such police dog deaths around the country.
Mason, a 3-year-old “community engagement officer” in Gulf Shores, Alabama, died in on June 18 after being left in the back of a patrol car while on duty. And on June 30, a Stockton, California, K9 named Nitro died after the air-conditioner failed in his police car.
Stockton Police spokesperson Joe Silva shared with PEOPLE what his department is doing to prevent any further K9 deaths.
“Handlers have been directed to leave their K9 partners at home on days the weather forecast calls for 100 degrees or more, until new vehicles are put into service,” he said.
Silva also said that while this is the first incident he can recall of this kind at SPD, everyone should take precaution when it comes to leaving anyone or anything in a hot car.
“Everyone needs to remember that dogs are more vulnerable to high temperatures than people,” he said. “Animals can sustain brain damage or even die from heatstroke in just 15 minutes.”
• Additional reporting by ADAM CARLSON