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Police canines bring special skills to dangerous job

The dogs are used for finding missing persons or suspects, detecting explosives and finding deadly drugs.

Riverhead K-9 police officer Rocky died in a

Riverhead K-9 police officer Rocky died in a police-involved motor vehicle crash on Sept. 2. Photo Credit: Officer John Morris

When Rocky died earlier this month after he was ejected from a Riverhead police car  pursuing a suspect, he joined 18 other fellow K-9 officers killed in the line of duty in the United States this year.

The 8-year-old German shepherd was also part of a large community of trained canine officers serving across Long Island and New York City, assisting in daily policing and performing work for specialized units, law enforcement officials said. The dogs help find missing persons or criminal suspects, locate evidence, detect explosives and sniff out deadly drugs.

Police departments Islandwide, the NYPD and the State Police all spend money, time and other resources to train, maintain and rely on these dogs' special skills.

“Having the dog is immeasurable in police work,” said Malverne Police Chief John Aresta, who is president of  the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police. “They can do things that we can’t,” he said, noting that during searches for bombs or other explosives police may not find dangerous materials until too late if dogs are not used.

“When everybody’s given up all hope of finding a person who committed a crime or a missing person, the dog is able to put it all together,” said Rocky’s handler, Riverhead Police Officer John Morris, who witnesses first hand the work canine units can do. “He searches with his nose as opposed to looking with his eyes.”

The NYPD has more than 130 dogs assigned to transit, narcotics, bomb squad and counterterrorism, and they are trained for each specific unit, officials said. The explosive detectors, also called vapor wake dogs, take 15 months to train.

"The work they do is unheralded," NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill said Friday, as he thanked more than a dozen NYPD canines and their handlers for their work during the UN General Assembly week. "It is not an easy job. I know they are our best friends but having a dog 24 hours a day, seven days a week is not an easy task and I know they are part of your family," O'Neill told the handlers.

The Suffolk County Police Department’s K-9 training academy runs 16 weeks for its basic patrol course and then another eight to 10 weeks of specialty training, Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said.

Among other things, these police dogs are trained to track ground disturbances, such as the smell of trampled grass, rather than sniff for a specific human’s smell like a bloodhound, he said.

Suffolk police have seven explosives-detection dogs — plus one that is based at MacArthur Airport — as well as eight narcotics-detection and two human remains-detection dogs. One unit is completing a basic patrol course and four more will start training soon.

Cameron suggested using canine units to search for human remains on Gilgo Beach, where the search for missing woman Shannan Gilbert led to the discovery of 10 other sets of human remains that law enforcement believed to be the work of one or more serial killers.

“There’s no technology that I’m aware of that is as capable of odor detection as a K-9,” he said. “I’ve seen them do amazing things.”

The department buys the dogs, usually German shepherds from Eastern Europe, for about $7,000, he said. The dogs are valued at $25,000 to $30,000 after training.

Early this month, State Police graduated 12 police dogs, including one that will be assigned to the Farmingdale-based Troop L, in an Albany ceremony. There are three other state K-9 teams assigned to Long Island.

“Our dogs have amazing and unique abilities that allow our members to be much more effective in so many aspects of our job,”  State Police officials said in a statement. “Every day our canine teams are hard at work, making major finds and at times bringing closure to families who have a missing loved one. Our teams across the state regularly locate missing persons, or suspects, locate key pieces of evidence, and seize deadly drugs from our communities.”

Nassau police also have a canine unit but declined to comment for this story.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said his department has had K-9 units for more than 30 years. The department currently has Titan, whose handler is Officer Jack Doscinski, and is already looking to replace Rocky, the chief said.

Malverne's Chief Aresta said in addition to sometimes acting in a community public relations role, K-9s can act as crime deterrents and often persuade criminals to surrender more quickly.

“They don’t know what that dog is thinking. They don’t know what’s going on inside that dog’s mind,” he said of suspects. “But they do know that dog is fearless.”

Police work often puts canine units in dangerous situations like riding in speeding cars, responding to active shooting threats or checking for explosives.

Aresta said the dogs can’t be restrained in the back seats of police vehicles — in some departments, officers keep a trunk release button on their belts to be able to free the dogs when they’re not near the cruisers. He added that some forces have issued K-9 bulletproof vests, but they’re not commonplace and usually not used regularly unless there’s a known shooting threat because the heavy vests can cause the dogs to overheat. Suffolk police officials also said their dogs don't wear safety restraints, but they are kept in padded areas in police cruisers.

Born in Poland, Rocky began his police training with Morris in May of 2011. The dog was certified in patrol work — such as finding people and recovering evidence — and narcotics detection for marijuana, hash, cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, MDMA, black tar heroin and methamphetamines.

Trained in German commands — “suche” means “search” — Rocky once found a missing elderly woman with dementia who likely would have frozen to death in the snow and freezing temperatures. Another time, he discovered a shooting suspect who was hiding in one house and the gun used to commit the crime in another.

Officials said Rocky was secured in the back of Morris’ vehicle — police dogs are usually in separate compartments and do not wear seat belts — when Morris responded to a pursuit of a suspect who had left a DWI checkpoint and struck an officer with his vehicle around 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 2.

During the pursuit, Morris lost control of his vehicle and struck a utility pole on West Main Street in Riverhead, police said. Rocky was ejected from the vehicle and died at the scene.

 He was the 19th police dog killed in the line of duty nationwide in 2018, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit organization that tracks law-enforcement deaths in the line of duty, including canines.

Rocky loved to work, Morris said, and would go from playing with Morris’ two sons to waiting at the police vehicle’s trunk — which he learned to open himself — once he saw his handler in uniform.

“Work was the most fun for him,” Morris said. “If he could talk, I think he would probably tell people he was honored to do it. He loved to work, he loved getting in that police car.”

With Anthony M. DeStefano and Michael O'Keeffe

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