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Role of K-9s changing in Mississippi law enforcement

March 11, 2018

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — More and more law enforcement agencies are looking to police dogs, not only for their ability to find drugs and criminals, but for their ability to reach out to the community.

In a climate where police across the country are sometimes viewed in a negative light, the dogs can be a way to show a different side of law enforcement.

“You’d be surprised at the number of community service events they do,” said Tupelo Police Department Major Anthony Hill. “We do a lot of demonstrations for schools.

“Dogs break down barriers between the officers and people. People are amazed by the obedience and the way the dog listens to and obeys the handler.”

TPD currently has five dogs. Four are cross-trained to handle tracking, apprehension and drug location. The other dog is trained only for sniffing out explosives and is assigned to the regional bomb squad. When the TPD K-9 unit was started more than 25 years ago, most of the dogs were trained to work all the time. While the dogs were friendly to the handler and his family, they tended to be aggressive to the public.

Over the years, law enforcement started looking for dogs with more social skills — dogs with calmer personalities when not working and those who worked well with children.

“Our old dog was great with kids,” said Chickasaw County Sheriff James Meyers. “He would walk right into a group of kindergartners and love it. That’s the personality we want in the new dog.”

West Point Police Chief Avery Cook agreed. His department’s new Belgian Malinois Kenzo has been on the job a few weeks and has already started making the rounds.

“He’s friendly. You can walk right up and pet him,” Cook said. “He’s already visited with school children.”

Visiting schools, especially elementary schools, gives law enforcement a chance to reach the youngest members of the community. It’s a way to help reduce the apathy and animosity police can sometimes get from some parts of the community.

While Tupelo has had dogs for nearly three decades, other agencies are either getting back into establishing K-9 programs or looking for a new tool to help fight crime.

Chickasaw County retired their last dog several years ago. When Meyers was elected sheriff in 2017, he knew it was time to start working toward a new dog.

“We deal with so much (methamphetamine), which is easy to hide, and folks are finding ingenious ways to hide it,” Meyers said. “But a dog can find it so much easier. In addition to the drugs, the dog is a great tool for clearing buildings or tracking a missing person.”

The Fulton Police Department was in the same situation. They retired a dog in 2014 and had been calling on the Itawamba County Sheriff’s Office and their K-9s whenever they needed help.

When Mitch Nabors was appointed police chief, he saw the need and started working. Caro, a 19-month-old German shepherd, is undergoing training right now. He should be on the job around the first of April.

In West Point, Cook is looking not only to have K-9s, but he is renewing the war on drugs in the Clay County community.

“We had a K-9 unit and a drug unit about 10 years ago but both were disbanded,” Cook said. “After I became chief, one of the things I wanted to emphasize was drugs.”

And Cook doesn’t want to stop at just one dog. He is already looking at adding more K-9s to the department.

Most departments want cross-trained dogs that can handle multiple tasks, so they usually look for shepherds or Malinois. The shepherds are bigger and stronger but can only work for seven to eight years. The Malinois are smaller, more energetic and can work up to 12 years old.

Two area sheriffs recently purchased bloodhounds, which are trained solely for tracking. Tippah County got a 10-week-old bloodhound puppy in November 2017 and are currently working to train Crenshaw, named after fallen officer deputy Dewayne Crenshaw.

Tippah County Sheriff Karl Gaillard said the dog will be able to help track not only criminals and abducted children, but also be able to locate children or the elderly who wander off.

For Calhoun County Sheriff Greg Pollan, an incident showed him the need for a dog who could follow cold trails. In June 2017, Adrian Golden shot his estranged wife in broad daylight in the middle of Bruce and fled into the woods. The department’s other K-9, Rico, picked up the scent that was about an hour old but was unable to follow it.

“That’s when I decided we needed a bloodhound,” Pollan said. “I gave my guys a directive to find a bloodhound, puppy or adult, that we could afford. Within a few days, they had a short list.”

Pollan picked up Duke (named after actor John Wayne) last month in Missouri. While he still has a lot of training to go before he can hit the tracking trails, Duke is already a big hit in Calhoun County. Handler Jimmy Wiygul and Duke have already made the rounds to businesses and schools.

“He is a celebrity and has his own Instagram account,” Pollan said. “I bet I get 30 calls a day from folks wanting to know when they can see him. I guess we’re going to have to hold a meet and greet for him.”

Having a K-9 officer is not a cheap venture. The cost of a shepherd or Malinois plus the initial training can cost a department up to $10,000. On top of that, there is the annual upkeep of food and veterinary visits. There are also extra expenses to tailor a patrol vehicle for K-9 use.

And, the department also has to dedicate one officer as a handler. That officer and their family have to be willing to accept the commitment of having a K-9. The dog lives at the handler’s residence when it is not working.

Finding the funding for the K-9 and handler is not easy, especially for small departments with lean budgets. So instead of asking the public to support a tax increase, departments are asking the public for donations.

“I’ve been sheriff for two years and haven’t found a way to put it into the budget,” Meyers said. “But talking with community groups, we had tremendous support so we started asking for donations.

“Some could give a little. Some gave a whole lot. We’re close to having enough.”

In West Point, Chief Cook went to the community and asked for donations from businesses and individuals. The remainder of the costs came from the department’s drug seizure account. In the few weeks he’s been working, Kenzo has already brought in new funds to the drug seizure account.

Nabors was pleasantly surprised by the support he got from Fulton.

“I knew we needed a dog so we went around to businesses and community leaders asking if they would help,” Nabors said. “We had it fully funded within a week. The dog and training cost around $8,000. Within a week and a half, we had raised $9,500.”

Pollan found the same support in Calhoun County, raising the funds for the bloodhound puppy in a few weeks.

There are also grants available through a variety of sources. Tippah County’s bloodhound was donated through the ALIE Foundation that focuses on missing and abducted children.

When they are not visiting schools or civic groups, K-9s provide a number of daily services. They are called to traffic stops when an officer suspects drugs may be hidden. They can also be used to sweep parking lots at schools or businesses. Their highly sensitive noses can detect even minuscule amounts of illegal drugs.

Following burglaries, the dogs can be used to clear houses or buildings to make sure no one is still inside. The dogs can detect the scent of a hiding human, even behind closed doors.

Most cross-trained dogs can also follow hot tracks, where the trail is less than 30 minutes old. Within the last year, Tupelo’s dogs have tracked down an armed robbery suspect, as well as an Alzheimer’s patient who wandered off.

“We see the benefits to the department from having a number of dogs,” Hall said. “I would like more.”

In addition to working for their own departments, most K-9s also respond to calls from neighboring agencies.

To keep their dogs in top form, most handlers do at least an hour of obedience training daily. Drug dogs have to be re-certified once a year. In some cases, departments re-certify twice a year.

The certification is necessary because the dog is considered an expert witness by the court. A patrol officer has to have probable cause before he can search a vehicle during a traffic stop. If a K-9 alerts and signals that there are drugs in a car, the officer can search, even over the driver’s objection.

Since bloodhounds are only used to locate people, not provide evidence of a crime, their certification process is not as rigorous.

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