A petition circulating in a western Twin Cities community seeks to allow a retired police officer to keep his K9 partner.
Officer Cody Vojacek medically retired from the Corcoran Police Department on Dec. 18, 2020, which he said in a Facebook post was due to PTSD that caused suicidal ideation and attempts. During his 4.5 years with the department, he helped start a K9 program, which led to him being paired up with his K9 partner Zeke.
When Vojacek retired, he sought to keep Zeke, saying it was recommended by his therapist to have Zeke also retire and join him as a service animal.
"As if the job didn't take enough from me, the chief called today (Jan. 15) and said they will be taking Zeke from me and reassigning him. Mind you, I was done Dec. 17 and have had him since with no communication from the city," the post said.
This led his sister, Bryanna Skochenski, to create a Change.org petition titled "Bring Zeke Home" to the city of Corcoran to allow Vojacek to keep Zeke. The petition was created on Jan. 15, and as of the morning of Jan. 18, it had garnered more than 7,500 signatures.
Corcoran Director of Public Safety Matthew Gottschalk told Bring Me The News on Monday that it is aware of the petition but the city has not yet been presented it, adding that it is up to the Corcoran City Council – not the police department – to decide if the city will donate K9 Zeke to Vojacek.
Zeke is the police department's only police dog.
"I understand and respect former Officer Vojacek’s request to keep Zeke, but I am not currently in a position to have the authority to grant it. The authority for the philanthropic use of City resources falls within the purview of the Corcoran City Council," Gottschalk said. "The City Administrator and I will continue to support the City Council as they evaluate their options."
It is unclear is the Corcoran City Council plans to consider donating Zeke to Vojacek. Bring Me The News has asked the city administrator if the City Council plans to discuss this at any upcoming meetings.
Gottschalk noted the city's policy doesn't address what happens to a K9 upon their handler's retirement.
"Regardless of whether I support the philanthropic decision, me giving away a valuable City resource for philanthropic reasons, no matter how well-intentioned, is prohibited," Gottschalk said. "Put simply, I do not have the authority to give away a publicly funded community resource like Zeke.
"Please do not fall into the false dichotomy that one can only support former Officer Vojacek or be a steward of community resources," he added. "I support Officer Vojacek and I also have a responsibility to respect the hard-earned contributions that our donors and taxpayers put into the formation of the canine program."
Gottschalk said Vojacek's retirement was a loss to the police department and a "loss of a significant part of the department's canine program," noting "Officer Vojacek’s hard work and dedication helped mold the canine program into an incredibly valuable asset to the community."
Criticism over officer's search methods
Vojacek has been commended for his work as a DWI enforcer but also has been the subject of criticism for his search methods.
Hennepin County judges in the past three years dismissed six criminal cases Vojacek worked on, saying he conducted unlawful searches, the Press & News reported in July 2020, noting the unlawful searches all involved traffic stops and some involved the use of a K9 sniffing for drugs.
In February 2020, when asked by a judge in the most recently dismissed case if he'd changed his methods, he said he hadn't because he disagreed with the findings.
More details can be found in this Star Tribune article, which looks at criticisms against prosecutors for failing to hold police accountable because they continue to bring charges against suspects based on evidence from officers who have previously conducted illegal searches, violated peoples' rights, or have lied on duty.
Vojacek, during his time at the Stearns County Sheriff's Office before joining the Corcoran PD, was the subject of an excessive lawsuit and had previously been reprimanded for not listening to superiors, KSTP reported.
City officials continued to defend officer Vojacek, the Press & News reported in July.
History of Corcoran's K9 program
According to Gottschalk, the Corcoran City Council in 2017 began considering adding a police K9 program, at Vojacek's urging, in an effort to address and reduce illicit drugs in the city that were impacting youths.
The City Council eventually decided to form a K9 program, which was funded with personal and business donations and tax dollars, and in January 2018, the Council approved an agreement to buy and train a police dog. The police department invested $12,900 to work with a canine trainer to identify and adopt a police dog.
The department selected a Belgian Malinois, born in March 2016, who was bred and raised as a law enforcement dog in the Czech Republic, and named him Zeke.
After two years of training overseas, Zeke came to the U.S. in February 2018. Vojacek applied and was accepted to be Zeke's handler, and by June 2018, they had graduated K9 handler school.
"Over the next two years, Officer Vojacek and Zeke went on to perform very meaningful work for the Corcoran community resulting in several drug and illegal weapons seizures in support of the Council’s goal," Gottschalk said.
Then, two years later in July 2020, Officer Voacek took a leave of absence, during which he continued caring for Zeke. Then in December, Vojacek resigned from the department and asked to keep Zeke, Gottschalk said.
"Officer Vojacek acknowledged Zeke’s very high work drive and expressed his desire to personally keep Zeke and retrain him for a different role. I informed Officer Vojacek that I would need to consider a number of factors and learn more information in order to provide him with a final decision. Officer Vojacek offered to continue caring for Zeke while the decision was evaluated," Gottschalk said, noting he is aware of the "significant bond" that forms between officers and their K9 partners.
Over the next few weeks, Gottschalk said he consulted with trainers and handlers, including those that had worked with Zeke, who said the dog was raised as a high-drive police K9 that still had about 6-8 years left of service and the best outcome for him would be to continue with his role as a police dog, where he'll be "equally as successful" after being trained with a different handler.
"While it can be customary for some agencies to make arrangements for handlers to purchase the canine near the end of the canine’s service life, that is not this scenario," Gottschalk said, noting if Zeke was given to Vojacek, "it would solely be philanthropic in nature and a significant loss of talent for the community."
Gottschalk said he is responsible for supporting his employees and representing the community's public safety interests and he's prohibited from giving away a city resource.