LAURINBURG – Scotland County Sheriff’s Office and Laurinburg Police Department have six doggone good officers eager to fight crime.
The departments each have three K9 officers who are always ready to perform whatever task their handlers ask of them.
The dogs in both departments are used to search for evidence, suspects and missing persons; to find narcotics and when necessary to apprehend a suspect. The dogs are also trained for handler protection.
Laurinburg Police Department’s K-9 team includes Lt. Chris Strickland, a former handler who oversees training and certification, Shane Butler, handler for Officer Jogi; David Hardy, handler for Officer Astor; and Kevin Rader, handler for Officer Tyson.
“It protects officers’ lives sometimes when we’re able to utilize the dogs because their nose and their senses are a lot better than ours,” Strickland said. “Three o’clock in the morning, if we have a business broken into, we can utilize the dog to go in and locate the suspect. Also if you were to have a barricaded subject in a house you could send them in for a building search.”
Strickland, who has been a handler since 1998, has had to use K-9 officers in that capacity on a few occasions, but the majority of what the city’s dogs do is narcotics detection or tracking suspects and lost persons.
“One of my most memorable things was locating a lady that had walked away from Willow Place,” Strickland said. “It was 10 or 15 years ago. It was one of those cold winter nights, that someone on their 70s or 80s with dementia if we wouldn’t have found them, they’d have frozen to death.”
Strickland’s dog tracked the woman to a field behind Locklear’s Produce Stand on X-Way Road within 20 minutes of arriving on scene.
“She was shivering, about to freeze to death. It made me feel good to save that life and find her before anything happened to her,” he said.
The police department’s dogs are certified through the US Law Enforcement K-9 Association.
Scotland County Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit includes Mitchell Woods, handler for Officer Eli; Brian “B.J.” Knight, handler for Officer Bob; and Ronnie McGee, handler for Officer Hazard.
The dogs are required to have 16 hours training a month, but the two teams train almost daily with their dogs in order to stay on top of skills needed for handlers and dogs to do their jobs well.
Like any officer the dogs have their preference for a particular duty, but they are trained to be versatile in order to be able to assist the other K-9 officers when necessary.
The sheriff’s office dogs are certified through International Police Work Dog Association in Fayetteville.
“We certify in patrol and narcotics. Patrol consists of tracking building search, aggression, open area searches, and evidence search. Narcotics is its own branch,” Knight said.
Evidence search takes on many forms from searching buildings to locating evidence dropped or thrown out during and after the commission of a crime.
“A lot of times you run into somebody who might be running from the law, and they throw the gun out the window and you need to locate that gun in a ditch or a field. You can send the dog out searching for that human odor on a foreign object,” Knight said. “It stands out and changes the base line compared to the normal grass and all the stuff that’s out there. You can find shell casings, gloves, wallets pretty much anything that’s left with human scent on it.”
According to the deputies, 85 percent of their calls are for tracking people who are suspects and for “jump and runs,” or people who attempt to flee from law enforcement after a traffic stop.
Using the dogs to apprehend suspects comes with a set of guidelines human officers are required to follow before bringing in the dogs.
“It has to be a serious felony to use the dog for apprehension purposes, for bite work with resistance. The person has to be given the opportunity to stop first and notified that the K-9 will be released. If they don’t comply then and it is a serious felony, the K-9 will be released,” Knight said.
The thought process that goes into deciding to release the dog on a suspect is a heavy one according to one handler.
“You have to make that decision at the time, ‘OK if I release him, what’s the consequences?’ Nine times out of 10 we’re probably going to hesitate and try to do a foot pursuit and then if we lose them we’ll back up and release the dog as far as tracking,” Woods said.
Laurinburg Police Department’s K-9s have been used in such a case according to Strickland.
In October 2016, the department’s K-9 unit was used to apprehend a man suspected of robbing a bank in Richmond County.
All three handlers and dogs went into the woods behind Pizza Hut to search for suspect who had jumped out of a car near the restaurant following a high-speed chase.
“Most of the officers are setting up perimeters, and the assistant chief is putting them where he needs them. These are the guys that are going in looking for that armed man in that swamp. We don’t know what’s going to take place when we confront them,” Strickland said. “Any time they go into the woods on a situation like that, there’s a higher level of danger for those handlers and that dog.”
In situations like that the suspect has the upper hand because he can hear or see the officers coming. The handlers are often accompanied by backup because their focus needs to be on the dog watching for subtle clues in the dog’s behavior that tell him that the K9 is on the trail of the suspect.
But it’s not all work for the four-legged members of the force. The dogs are allowed downtime and go home with the officer often being included as family members.
“You have to build that bond with your K-9s, so it’s not work, work, work. You’ve got to have that bonding phase,” Knight said. “So they get treated like dogs, but they also know the difference between work and bonding.”
Playtime can incorporate elements of training according to Woods. Handlers weave elements like obedience and other tasks into play in order to build both skills and the bond between handler and dog. Praising the dog can take on the form of play, roughhousing and petting the dog so that he or she knows the difference between playtime and work.
The officers work with each others’ dog and even teach their families to work with the dogs as a backup in case the handler is incapacitated for some reason.
Like any other officer, the dogs will one day face retirement. The dogs work until they unfit for duty or develop a health issue which is usually around 8 or 9 years, depending on the dog. Strickland has seen some dogs work as long as 16 years-old.
The wear and tear on the dogs from jumping in and out of the vehicles often causes arthritis in the hips.
“If the dog starts having any kind of health problems or kind or slowing down a little bit, they’ve worked the whole first eight years of their life, we want them to enjoy the last little bit,” Knight said.
Having to retire a dog or put one down is like losing a member of the force or a member of the force or the family, according to the officers.
“These guys will cry tears. I could break down and cry right here about me having to put that last one to sleep,” Strickland said. “Those dogs are with these guys more than their families are. When they’re at work that dog’s their main focus, and when they go home they still have to groom, feed and get the dog out in training, so it’s just like a child to them.”
The typical cost of a K-9 officer is $12,500, but Strickland buys untrained dogs at about $5,000 each and trains them. The sheriff’s office purchases dogs from Strickland as well. The rest of the cost to both departments is made up of veterinary bills, dog food, and equipment.
Reach Beth Lawrence 910-506-3169