It's the middle of the night, and I'm sitting in a marked Decatur (Ill.) Police Department Chevy Tahoe with a big dog-a Belgian Malinois named Rico-and Officer Dan Wise, the third-shift K-9 handler.
"So if I'm hunting a man, I'd set up a perimeter, say two to three blocks around where we think he is," says Wise as he shares with me tactics he uses on the job. "We'll let the suspect know we're out here, have him go to ground, try to wait us out. He'll be scared, and his fear-the adrenaline and sweat-will give the dog something good to work with. Then the dog will work that track right to the suspect, and we'll call him out. If he's dangerous and wanted for a serious crime, then we might let the dog go in and get him..."
Hunting is a consistent theme with the K-9 handlers of Decatur PD's highly regarded K-9 program. All the handlers are hunters, used to working with dogs in the field, hunting both game and men. Macon County (Ga.) Dep. Joe Mannix, who trains with the Decatur program, approves of this arrangement. "Hey, I pay good money to go hunting," he says. "When I come in to work, I get paid to hunt with my dog. Makes you really want to come to work."
Over continual rounds of coffee, Skoal, and Mountain Dew, the handlers share some insights about their jobs.
First-shift handler Officer Steve Jostes, who is the master trainer for the Decatur unit as well as for a number of neighboring municipalities, says, "It's the best job in the department...for the right officer."
Jostes says the allure of working in the K-9 unit can draw all sorts of officers who want to get into it more for the perks than for the love of the job.
"Some guys think, 'Hey, if I'm a K-9 officer I'll get a take-home car and extra pay, so I think I'll get a dog.' But it's not like that." Especially in a small town where a member of the K-9 unit is a hot commodity that needs to be available when needed, the demands of working with a dog can be stressful.
"This job can have an impact on your long-term career prospects," says Jostes. "There's a lot of stress from the call-outs: wearing a pager and being on call all the time. You need real commitment to this job; you can't go halfway."
Being a K-9 trainer, Jostes knows how much effort goes into maintaining critical skills in addition to the hours logged on duty.
"You've got to spend the time on training," says Jostes. "The dog's performance doesn't lie, and you can't hide it."
Personal attitude and having a family amenable to accommodating a K-9 are also important, according to Jostes. "A good handler's got to have a good temper, good interpersonal skills, and he's got to have a good interface with his family. Having a police dog at home, you've got to think about your kids, your wife, your neighbors, all those things."
Jostes also warns that even if you feel you might be right for the job and are willing to take on the stresses and responsibilities involved, the higher-ups might take issue with a less than stellar track record. "A real big piece is what kind of history you've got as a cop before taking on a dog," he says. "Before you apply, ask yourself, what's your use-of-force background?"
The Decatur Police Department serves a community of 80,000 with 164 sworn officers and 37 civilian personnel. Among small to mid-size departments, Decatur PD enjoys an excellent reputation in central Illinois for a number of reasons, including its K-9 program.
Deputy Chief Todd Walker, who provides the administration-level guidance for the K-9 program, relates how the K-9 unit recently participated in a multi-agency manhunt scenario training exercise: "Our dogs were so good we offended some people by catching the escapees so quickly."
But that level of performance didn't come easily, and Decatur's journey to excellence started with some rocky low points.
In the late 1970s, the legacy of the civil rights movement and widely circulated pictures of police dogs turning on non-violent protestors led the police administration to mandate there be no police dogs in the Decatur Police Department. There were concerns, both within the department and from the community, that dogs were inappropriate, especially in a town with a history of labor disputes and civil unrest and lingering racial tension.
But in 1982, the police administration decided to revisit the idea of a K-9 unit. A publicity campaign to promote local support was launched. The administration reached out to local community organizations to generate support for the program in the form of favorable opinion and donations of equipment and dogs.
There were some serious stumbling blocks in the first start-up: the dogs donated weren't really appropriate for police work; they weren't bred for it. Without good basic material to start with, the training available didn't adhere as well, with subsequently poor results on the street.
"So we had to go back to square one," says Decatur Police Chief Mark Barthelemy. "We had to get our dogs, training, and equipment up to standard."