Photo: Amaury Murgado
Tools are only as good as the people that use them. For example, a Samurai sword might cut in any hand, but in order to maximize its lethality, it takes a skilled warrior with years of training. Like the Samurai sword, a K-9 team is an effective tool if its use is understood by those that call on them to support their operations. If you are amateurish in your approach to finding the suspect, he will slip through your fingers. K-9 teams do not operate in a vacuum; they need help from other responding units in order to maximize their effectiveness.
K-9 teams are considered force multipliers. One K-9 team can do the work of many officers, which frees up officers for other duties. The last time I checked, there were approximately 14 states that required a K-9 team certification. In Florida, we require a 400-hour basic training course to certify a K-9 team before it can be deployed. Other states accept a national recognized standard from one of the K-9 associations and add their own set of additional requirements.
Regardless of what standard is used, establishing a K-9 unit is a huge commitment and investment for an agency to make. Field operatives need to remember that: Think about how you use the K-9 unit and treat them with respect. I have been involved with a few spectacular catches as a cover officer and I have to admit it is a huge adrenaline rush. Any veteran officer will tell you that a well trained K-9 team is worth its weight in gold.
Take a building search, for example. Using a K-9 team is the most effective and efficient way to search a building for a suspect. And yet, how many times do road patrol units just rush in before checking if a K-9 unit is available? I call this type of attitude ribbon chasing. Everyone wants to catch the bad guy and get the gold star. We allow our zeal for the find to cloud our judgment. Or worse, we blow off the call as just another smash and grab, and contaminate the hell out of the scene. You don't need to squander K-9's usefulness by using improper tactics or procedures. Unless exigent circumstances exist, time is on your side. Use time as a weapon instead of an excuse.
It's also important to understand that there is a special bond between handler and dog that makes them act as one. They depend on each to get the job done, but they depend on us for everything else.
So how can you make things better? Much of what patrol officers can do to help K-9 units is what you are supposed to be doing anyway. Things like setting up a good perimeter, protecting a crime scene, and staying off the radio during a track. Now if only these standard procedures were followed more frequently.
It's easy to get desensitized to things in law enforcement. You handle so many calls of a similar nature that you can forget each one you respond to is new. They all blur together with you saying things like, "Is that damn alarm going off again?" The problem with such a mindset is that you are never issued that crystal ball that sees all. Because cops go to so many false alarms or calls that just don't pan out, doing something as critical as setting up a proper perimeter sometimes seems unimportant. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The idea behind setting up a perimeter is that size does matter. Bigger is better...you can always make it smaller later. A good perimeter keeps the suspect penned in an area so a K-9 can track to them. The goal is that every time the suspect goes on the move, he sees a patrol car and goes back inside the perimeter and hunkers down. In order for that to happen, each person on perimeter needs to be in his or her car, lights on, and paying attention. It's also preferable whenever possible to shut the cars off, as the exhaust fumes kill the scent involved with the track.
But what inevitably happens is instead of officers scanning their assigned areas for the suspect to pop out, they busy themselves with texting, reading, talking on the cell phone, or playing on their in-car computers. I've often wondered how many times a suspect has snuck by someone who was not paying attention.