Courtesy Conyers Police Department
September 12, 2015 11:55 AM

It’s been a long, painful few months for police departments across the nation as record numbers of K-9 unit dogs have died, including 11 animals whose deaths were a result of heat exhaustion.

Even sadder, nine of those reported dogs died after being locked in scorching hot squad cars by their human handlers.

“It’s been a really bad summer,” Ron Cloward with the Western State’s Police Canine Association tells PEOPLE. “Whether it’s been because of faulty equipment or an officer making a bad decision or a bad mistake, it’s just been tragic.”

The deaths have been making headlines all summer and two cases recently came up as summer drew to a close. In Alice, Texas, Latham Roldan – a former deputy sheriff fired in August after leaving his K9 partner, Jola, in a squad car for nearly 20 hours in near triple-digit temperatures – was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty on Sept. 8 and faces a one-year jail sentence.

And on Sept. 8, Hialeah, Florida, police officer Nelson Enriquez was cleared in the deaths of Hektor, a 3-year-old Belgian Malnois and Jimmy, a 6-year-old bloodhound, after he left the animals in his SUV for several hours in late May. According to reports, Enriquez, a 13-year department veteran, had just returned home after working a midnight shift, but was immediately called back to work – along with his dogs – to help find a missing child.

After the child was located, an “exhausted” Enriquez, who has currently been reassigned to administrative duties, finally arrived back home shortly after noon and, according to an investigative report released by the Broward state attorney’s office, got out of his Ford Explorer and went inside his house to go to sleep. “For some inexplicable reason, he . . . leaves his dogs inside [his truck], the report states.

Although the Hileah police department is currently conducting an investigation of its own, Broward Assistant State Attorney Alex Urrela wrote, “In order to be held criminally liable for his acts, proof would be required that officer Enriquez intentionally left his dogs in a closed hot car in Davie, Florida, in late May. There is no evidence to support this ghoulish proposition.”

Besides heat-related deaths, since January as least another 13 dogs have died – bringing the total number of deaths to at least 24 – from a variety of causes, including three fatalities from gunshot wounds, two from fire and one from poisoning. But what makes this summer’s heat-related deaths particularly tragic, says experts like Cloward, is that in most cases they are often preventable.

Technology exists for K9-unit patrol cars that are designed to automatically cool the unattended vehicles down – while also alerting officers – once the temperatures inside climb too high.

“It certainly doesn’t relieve anyone of their obligation [to make sure their dog is safe],” Cloward adds. “But in case after case these systems haven’t been installed properly or have just failed and dogs lose their lives. Which is absolutely devastating to a handler, who often spends more time with their dog than they do with their own family.”

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