Narcotics dogs are an important part of rural and small department law enforcements’ team effort to counter the distribution and use of illegal drugs. Small departments looking to improve their drug interdiction capabilities should consider adding a narcotics dog to their counter-drug arsenal.
With eight major drug corridors passing through rural areas, traffickers often leave smaller communities with spillover illicit drug problems and violence in the wake of their efforts to get their product to larger markets.
Craig, Colorado, situated in Moffat County in Northwest Colorado, is a case in point.
In 2003, a local grocery retailer approached the department with an idea to replace a retired narcotics dog through a $5000 grant from Milk-Bone dog biscuits, a program that is, unfortunately, no longer available. Through the program the department purchased Fury, a black Labrador Retriever. The department then provided the funds to train the handler, Officer Alvin Luker (since then promoted to Corporal).
To find the right dog, the Department used a vendor and trainer who helped refine the department’s requirement and then located and trained the dog.
After three months training, Fury and Officer Luker started work. Initially, the team performed almost 20 searches or more a month, with probably one arrest a week. During the past seven years, they have participated in more than 200 vehicle and house searches. Many of these have been free-air searches on vehicles, where officers, in accordance with Colorado court decisions, have already developed articulable reasonable suspicion before the free-air search.
Fury’s biggest single find — although small by urban standards — has been 3.5 ounces of methamphetamine and seven pounds of marijuana, both destined for use in the local community.
Luker was initially surprised at how blatant drug dealers and users were in keeping drugs in their cars. However, after it became known that the police department had a drug dog, habits changed. As a result, Fury has done fewer free-air searches on vehicles and is now making his presence known in common areas to help school officials and landlords deter illegal drugs.
For Luker and Fury, one of their most important responsibilities is to maintain certification with both the Colorado Police Canine Association (CPCA) and the National Police Canine Association (NPCA). 1 They have successfully met the NPCA standards and are certified on five odors: marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy.
To maintain their certification, Luker and Fury attend a yearly NPCA Canine Narcotics, Patrol, and Bomb Certification Seminar hosted by the Teton County, Wyoming Sheriff’s Office. Deputy David Hodges coordinates the event.
For the last eight years, Deputy Hodges, whose dog Pepper is also a successful narcotics dog, has worked closely with NPCA.2 Each year, approximately 25 dogs and handlers, representing a wide range of agencies throughout the country and Canada, meet to share experiences and re-certify teams.
According to Deputy Hodges, approximately two-thirds of the attending teams are narcotics-only dogs, though one-third are dual-purpose patrol dogs, with narcotics being one of the two certifications.
Narcotics dogs and handlers attending the seminar must certify on a minimum of two (marijuana and cocaine) of five odors to work on the street. Methamphetamine, heroin, and ecstasy are the three additional odors.
The Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, which is Craig’s home county, has taken a different approach to its acquisition and training of a narcotics dog.
Sergeant Courtland Folks raised his dog, Czar, from a puppy. One year after Luker and Fury started working, Sgt. Folks and Czar started handling calls under a contract with the Sheriff’s Office.
With strong support from previous and current sheriffs, Folks trained Czar himself. Folks, who has had experience training hunting dogs, believes that the key to a good team is dog genetics, the trainer, and the handler. All of Czar’s upkeep is the responsibility of Folks.
Folks and Czar are CPCA certified. Sheriff’s Deputies, local Colorado State Patrol troopers, and Craig Police (when CPL Luker and Fury are unavailable) use the team approximately two times a month.
The largest amount of drugs Czar and Folks have discovered was 30 pounds of marijuana stored in a duffel bag in the backseat of a car.
Sgt. Folks has also received strong community support, especially from schools and landlords. One consideration Sgt. Folks stressed was that, during his walks through common areas of apartment complexes, he made sure he does not appear overtly intrusive, which helps keep the support of law-abiding tenants and their guests.
The three handlers have not spent a lot of time defending their dogs in court. Luker has yet to testify in court about Fury’s capabilities, training, and performance. Typically those arrested plead to a lesser offense. For Deputy Hodges and Pepper, the situation is a bit different. In their case Deputy Hodges’ testimony consists of his explaining Pepper’s certifications and, as a result, defense attorneys typically stipulate to the dog’s credentials.
Folks, on the other hand, has testified in three trials and two motions hearings. In one of the trials the defense attorney blocked his testimony and Czar’s efforts, but prosecutors won a drug conviction anyway. Local judges have designated Folks as an expert witness, and no judge has yet ruled that Czar is unreliable. believes the most important role of the handler in court is to articulate what the dog is doing, and why.
The experience of these three rural teams suggests:
• Several different paths exist to help small agencies acquire the dog they need. Small, cash-strapped agencies may be able to find available grants to help defray costs. A good place to start would be regional certifying agencies.
• The selection of a potential handler is critical. The handler should be willing to aggressively work drug interdiction, and the dog should be an important component of the effort but not the sole reason to conduct interdiction operations. The handler must also be prepared to keep detailed records on the dogs training and performance.
• Dogs do not replace investigations. Officers or deputies must develop their own reasonable suspicion and probable cause to search the vehicle or premises.
• Once a new team becomes effective, illegal drug distributors and users will change habits, making it increasingly difficult to find illicit drugs. Departments should be prepared to shift the team’s emphasis when necessary and the team must remain open to new and creative ideas.
• Departments must consider sustainment costs when acquiring a narcotics dog. Not only could there be FLSA-driven over-time costs, but daily care and insurance requires additional expense.
Law enforcement officers must have the tools necessary to combat illicit drug distribution and use. Expanded drug interdiction training and, when appropriate, the use of narcotics dogs are critical tools to successfully fulfill the onerous burden of protecting our communities from the ravages of illegal drug trafficking.
1 See http://coloradopolicek9.com and http://www.npca.net/ Both organizations offer dog and handler certifications well beyond narcotics.
2 Deputy Hodges can be contacted at his agency at (307) 733-2331 or firstname.lastname@example.org.