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UTA using K-9s to protect against threats on mass transit

SALT LAKE CITY — With public safety concerns growing in the wake of numerous violent incidents around the nation, the Utah Transit Authority is maintaining vigilance on public transportation routes.

Explosions in Texas, along with recent shootings in Florida and Maryland have created higher senses of alert from law enforcement across the U.S. While Utah has avoided any large-scale incidents, local authorities are focusing energies on readiness and taking proactive steps to ensure preparedness on all modes of mass transit.

On Tuesday, UTA conducted training and safety demonstration sweeps with K-9 officers. UTA Police Sgt. Chad Ziengenhorn, with his German short-haired pointer Bobbie, and officer Tony Brereton, with springer spaniel Daisy, patrolled TRAX, FrontRunner and buses at the Salt Lake Central Station downtown.

The canines are trained to sniff out explosive materials as well as firearm-related material, explained Ziengenhorn.

"We've had area searches for guns, and (Bobbie) has located a gun that was used in a homicide and one other was used in a shooting," he said. "We've located shell casings as well, but no explosives. And I hope I go my whole career not finding any."

The agency has two K-9 officers used for explosive detection, with a third scheduled to come online in the near future, Ziengenhorn said. A fourth may come onboard at some point, he said, but for the immediate future, there will be a trio of four-legged officers on duty each day of operation.

"We work 10-hour shifts," Ziengenhorn said. "We're out here every day being a visible deterrence. In this day and age, you really never know when something might occur."

The K-9s are working throughout the system, from Utah County to Weber County, he said. While the dogs are trained for explosive detection, they are not trained for apprehension, he added, which means that they can interact with the public under controlled circumstances.

He acknowledged that Utah has avoided much of the violence that has happened in other areas of the country, and the goal of UTA officers is to maintain a visible presence on public transit to prevent such incidents from ever occurring.

"Our department and the UTA administration is taking a proactive approach," he said. "They're really concerned about the safety of our passengers, so we're using every tool out there."

He also implored riders to raise their awareness of their surroundings when riding transit by looking for things that may be out of the ordinary. And if they see something unusual, call in to report it, he said.

"A lot of people don't want to bother us or figure it's nothing (to report), but I would much rather come out and investigate something and put a dog on (an unattended) bag or something like that and find out it was nothing than for something to happen," Ziegenhorn said. "That's what we're out here for."