The last few weeks have been tragic for canine handlers. We lost two brave souls with the recent loss of Officer Brent Long of the Terre Haute, Indiana Police Department who was shot and killed on July 11, 2011 while executing a search warrant for a felony suspect. Officer Long along with his K9 partner, Shadow was shot. Officer Long was mortally wounded. His K9 partner Shadow was wounded as well and is expected to survive.
Just two weeks earlier we lost another canine handler, Deputy Sheriff Kyle Pagerly of the Berks County Sheriff’s Department in Pennsylvania. He too was shot and killed. His K9 partner Jynxx was not injured in the incident. K9 Jynxx pulled Deputy Pagerly from the line of fire. This exemplifies the bond of handler and K9 that other officers will never understand.
Our thoughts and prayers are with each family and K9 as they attempt to heal.
Most of us join law enforcement as a sense of service to help our fellow man. While going through the academy and field training programs we learn as young officers to trust our instincts. When you become a K9 handler everything you learned about how to trust your instincts and senses seems to lesson. What is meant by this is you now have an extra set of eyes, ears, and nose to rely upon. Some of the instincts that you learn to survive from you must now rely on your K9 to assist you with. This is the hardest transition to becoming a handler. I have no doubt that each handler had full complete trust in their K9 just as any of us would have. Being a K9 handler is probably the most dangerous job in law enforcement. It requires the most training to become proficient. We are more likely to be involved in officer involved shootings. With this come limitations as to what we can or cannot do as handlers.
I do not know the particulars of each death and would not speculate on it. But what I have learned, I learned from my own experiences as well as other experiences from handlers from all over the country are the same. When you think of your next K9 deployment stop for a second and ask if this is a practical situation for a K9 team. Before any K9 is used officer safety must trump everything. When executing search warrants and there is a K9 team available it’s important to assess the goal or mission of the objective. When I am used on search warrants I maintain an outside rear parameter position. This will allow fast and easy K9 apprehension should the suspect flee. Placing a handler in an entry team position is a serious officer safety threat without his K9 partner. The handler must clear the home being searched and immediately put on the K9 handler hat and go track the suspect if he had fled from the scene. All tracks have a low success rate.
When deciding to deploy a K9 we need to understand the limitations of what a team can do. This is where training comes into play. If your department will allow training with the SWAT or ERT teams then I would highly recommend that training. You can work on active shooter situations. There are various seminars around the country that teach tactical use of police K9’s in dangerous situations. Every department needs to review their use of police canine policies or special operation procedures. When reviewing the policies look at how deployments are authorized. Some agencies allow the deployment of a K9 from a supervisor level without that supervisor having any training or experience with K9’s. My department only authorizes me the ability to deploy my K9, but reserves the right for a supervisor to deny the deployment. This is important in two different ways. It forbids the use of a K9 at the authority of supervisor. A supervisor who lacks the necessary schooling, training, and knowledge of what the K9 team can and cannot do. Lastly, it allows the supervisor to override my decision to deploy. I may have an emotional involvement with the situation and not see clearly that I am placing myself and/or my K9 partner in danger. This is important on checks and balances.
While we reflect on the lives of our brothers, sisters, and K9 partners who have paid the ultimate sacrifice let’s remember the good that comes from our profession. As my Sergeant says everyday in roll call, have a plan. Treat everyone with respect but know that people are out there to kill you. Mentally prepare for any life and death situation that you may encounter. To all K9 handlers; I do not need to remind you of the first lesson we learned, trust your K9 partner. Trust the bond. Trust each other.
To my fellow handlers and K9’s who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, thank you and rest in peace.
About The Author:
Chris Watkins started his law enforcement career as a police officer in our Nation’s Capital before moving his family west. In DC he worked with the Major Narcotics Unit as well as performing undercover assignments in the Street Robbery Unit. In his new location he was assigned to the Street Crimes Unit with the majority of his duties encompassing narcotics investigations and doing more undercover work. Currently he’s assigned as a K-9 handler for his agency. He’s an active member of the USPCA, FOP and FAAM.