DECATUR – Because police dogs have consistently proved they are valuable members of the force, the Decatur Police Department has expanded its K-9 unit to an all-time high number of teams.
With the addition of two dogs and two handlers, the department will have a K-9 team on the street during each of its three patrol shifts, in addition to the team assigned to its Street Crimes drug interdiction unit.
“In the last 10 years, we have gone from three dogs in the county to seven dogs, which is a much better place to be,” said Decatur Police Sgt. Dan Wise, K-9 unit supervisor. “Our K-9 teams respond to the highest priority calls. Other officers make very critical decisions, but not on an everyday basis like the K-9 units do and usually not in such a spontaneous fashion as the K-9 units have to respond.”
As an example of the importance of the K-9 force, on Jan. 14 a Decatur police team was immediately sent to a northside apartment complex to take part in the investigation of a homicide that occurred in a parking lot.
Officer Bobby Baker, who normally works the day shift but was the officer on call that night, quickly responded with his K-9 partner, Koy, and searched for a possible suspect and evidence. The investigation in that case remains open.
Many defendants in crimes including robberies, burglaries and homicides have been convicted with the help of police dogs and their handlers.
For many years, Decatur officers have been working closely with the Macon County Sheriff's Office, which has three K-9 units, two assigned to patrol and one to explosives.
The two newest additions to the Decatur force, Rex and Aldo, were the first graduates of the Macon County Sheriff's Office K-9 Academy, opened in 2015. Steve Jostes, the academy's director, retired in May, after serving 28 years as a Decatur police K-9 officer.
Matt “Kyle” Daniels, an officer for seven years who had been serving as the department's gang specialist, was selected as the handler for Aldo, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois from Holland.
Chris Snyder, an officer for four years whose family owned a kennel, is teamed up with Rex, a German Shepherd/Malinois mixed breed from the Czech Republic
Daniels recently experienced a breakthrough moment with Aldo.
After a man was shot and seriously injured in the 700 block of West Packard Street the night of Jan. 12, the team was deployed to the scene of the shooting. An article search turned up a firearm, the first one the team has found.
Unfortunately, the celebration turned to near tragedy, when Aldo inadvertently dug his teeth into his handler's face and head.
“He got jacked up,” recalled Daniels, who suffered wounds requiring stitches in his nose and eyelid, in addition to puncture wounds on the side of his head. “We were both excited: Omigod, it's a gun.”
After Aldo located the firearm in a tire, Daniels' objective was to reward him by throwing him a ball, which would also pull him away from the evidence.
“It took a weird bounce and came right at me,” Daniels said. “He just came after the ball with an open mouth and got me right in the face.”
Daniels suffered lacerations beneath his eye and on his eyelid, requiring stitches, in addition to about a dozen puncture wounds on his face and head. Daniels was transported to the hospital for treatment, where he remained for five hours.
“He didn't bite down,” Daniels said. “If he did, I'd be missing half my face.”
Wise said it is not uncommon for a handler to get injured, while training his dog or while on duty, but it is somewhat unusual to be injured in such an obvious location and so early in one's career.
“A dog doesn't have the ability to express his thoughts to you,” Wise said, adding sometimes they might express distaste for a task by snapping at a handler. “If you're training responsibly, it doesn't happen often, and it is usually not serious. A dog might bite a handler if he zigs when he should have zagged.”
Daniels and Snyder were among about a dozen officers who applied for the K-9 positions. They both showed interest in becoming K-9 officers a year earlier, attending a training session while off duty to see if that was something they wanted to pursue.
Snyder, whose family raised and trained hunting dogs, said he wanted to become a K-9 officer since he joined the department in 2011.
“The K-9 unit was the best fit for me, where I would be the happiest,” Snyder said.
On Snyder's first day on the street, he and Rex found a bag hidden under leaves in the woods containing about 64 grams of cocaine and two grams of marijuana, street value $6,500, along a route a suspect used to flee from police. That suspect was out on bond in a Class X armed violence case.
In December, the the tracked a suspect who fled from a traffic stop to a Dumpster on the Millikin University campus.
Snyder said Rex is a very intelligent dog, with critical thinking skills that are better developed than full-blooded Malinois's because of his German Shepherd side.
“He is the only half-breed we have in the department,” Snyder said. “He has a little different personality than other dogs. A little more of a thinker. The rest of the dogs will obey commands without a second thought. He'll do it, but he'll do it his own way.”
Daniels said that other dogs will knock down a wall to get where they are going, but Rex “will open the door and enter the room. Rex might think: There's an easier way to do this.”
Wise explained that a German Shepherd can think about two things at the same time, while a Malinois can think about only one.
“He never backs down, but he's going to do it how he sees fit,” Snyder said. “He's going to play the game on his terms.”
As an example of Rex's unique style, Daniels was wearing a padded suit, playing the role of a hiding suspect during training. The suit didn't prevent Rex from harming his prey.
“Rex bit me on the hand,” Daniels recalled. “Rex pulled my hand out of the sleeve.”
By the time he collided with his handler's face, Aldo had already proved his effectiveness in several cases. When called to investigate a vehicle at a traffic stop, Aldo signaled that there were narcotics inside.
“From that traffic stop, we seized just shy of $11,000 in currency,” Daniels said.
Rex and Aldo were purchased July 1, through a gift from the Howard Buffett Foundation. Their handlers were selected the following month.
“The K-9 job is one of the most dangerous jobs on the police force,” Daniels said, adding that several police dogs were killed this week across the nation. “But you always find something to show for your hard work. It's obviously the coolest job on the police department.”
With two of the K-9 unit's longtime officers, Jostes and Steve Baldwin recently retiring, that created two openings. Daniels and Snyder were thrilled when they were selected to fill those positions. Many officers who aspire to work with dogs never get that opportunity.
“We are extremely lucky we started our careers exactly when we did,” Daniels said.
Wise said officers who work with dogs have to be cool under pressure and make the right decisions every time.
“For most major crimes, there will be a dog on the scene,” said Wise, who served as a K-9 handler for 13 of his 21 years on the force. “There are very few serious crimes that occur that a K-9 can't be used for something.”
Police K-9 units earn their own keep.
“The cost of the entire unit is run by drug seizures,” Wise said. “It is paid for by the asset forfeitures that these dogs are participating in seizing. They play a large part in these seizures.”
Baker, who joined the K-9 unit in November 2014, said he joined the police department to be a K-9 officer. He has been on the department almost four years.
“I love it,” said Baker, who grew up around his grandfather's well-trained hunting dogs. “The highlights are finding people we track. It's the toughest thing we do. I get the most satisfaction out of tracking. It's the most fun I have. Every day we do real police work. It's what we want to do, look for bad guys and do real police work.”
Chad Larner, an officer since 2002, is the longest serving police department handler, after he was assigned to K-9 unit in October 2014. He brought a wealth of experience with him, 11 years of training and selling police dogs to law enforcement agencies.
Larner, a Street Crimes detective, was instrumental in selecting the two newest four-legged additions. He traveled to out-of-state kennels with Wise and other officers to find the best dogs. Larner said Rex was an impressive find at a Cleveland kennel; Aldo was the outstanding dog at an Indiana facility.
With the K-9 corps composed of young officers, unusual because often more experienced officers are selected, Wise is optimistic that it will be a top-notch unit for years to come. Each officer pledges to remain in the K-9 unit for five years. Most complete their careers as K-9 officers.
“I feel we have a very good beginning to what will become a highly skilled and experienced unit in the coming years,” Wise said. “So far they are beyond where they could be. They're improving their skills and abilities every day.”