K9s can be extremely effective tools for tracking suspects. Cover officers need to communicate and train with K9 handlers to provide support and protection without getting in the way.
If you have a K9 unit in your department or you have worked with one, you probably already know that most handlers have a lot of confidence in their K9s. This confidence comes from countless repetitions during monthly training days as well as multiple uses on patrol. However, any handler worth his salt will readily admit that no K9 is infallible and that there are things patrol officers can do to maximize the effectiveness of the K9.
There are basically two kinds of K9s for street patrol use: single- and dual-purpose. A single-purpose K9 is trained to focus on one of two specialty odors: explosives or narcotics. The dual-purpose K9 not only can track one of the two special odors that a single-purpose K9 does, but it also performs several patrol-related functions. The patrol functions include forceful apprehensions, building searches, tracking, evidence location and area searches. Let’s focus on tracking and area searching for this article.
Setting up an effective perimeter that impedes a suspect’s movement is beyond the scope of this article. However, securing the perimeter is first and foremost when it comes to successfully locating and apprehending a suspect that has recently fled on foot.
It is natural for many of us to give chase as soon as a suspect runs. However, as has been proven many times, it can be quite dangerous to continue to chase the suspect after the officer has lost sight of them. As soon as the officer has lost sight of the suspect, the foot pursuit should be called off and a perimeter set up, if it has not been done already. It is important for perimeter officers to stay at their posts and not walk through the area that the K9 will have to search. The more people that have recently walked through an area, the harder it will be for the K9 to effectively search for the suspect due to the competing scents that are now present.
If you are the cover officer, it is critical that you do several things. First, communicate with the handler. Find out where the handler wants you to be in relation to the K9 while you are searching or tracking. Some handlers prefer the cover officer to be behind or beside the handler, while other handlers prefer the cover officer to be closer to or even with the K9.
I prefer having the cover officer closer to even with the K9 and out to the side some because the cover officer is my eyes and ears while I am focused on the dog. It is my job to read my K9 and watch for behavioral indicators that tell me that my K9 is working a scent. Training and experience has taught me how to read my K9, and I do not expect my cover officer to know how to, or to even be looking at the K9. It is the cover officer’s responsibilities to provide 540 degrees of protection (up, down and all around) for both the K9 and the handler. If the cover officer is behind me, then it is harder for him or her to provide this coverage.
Another consideration is which side of the K9 to be on if you are the only cover officer. I personally prefer my cover officer to be on my left side, as I am a right-handed shooter. Depending on the situation, I may have my handgun out as well. This is especially true at night, as I have a light/laser combo unit on my handgun, and many handlers that I know have a similar set up. Speak to the handler that you are working with to determine exactly where he or she wants you to be.
As the cover officer, consider deploying with a long gun when possible. It doesn’t matter if the long gun is a shotgun or a rifle. What does matter is that the long gun provides a firepower and distance advantage for the K9 team, which you are now a part of. Another factor is that many patrol long guns are equipped with mounted lights, and this provides an obvious advantage when searching at night. Just be careful not to backlight the K9 or the handler!
Communicating via the radio is an officer-safety must. Since the handler is focused on the K9, the cover officer may have to provide most of the radio communications. Also, if the handler is from another agency that uses a different channel or radio system all together, then you are the life-link for the team when it comes to additional information and resources.
When the suspect is located, it doesn’t automatically mean that the K9 will be released to make the apprehension. Many times the threat of the K9 is enough to gain compliance. This is especially true when the K9 is savagely barking and growling only a few short feet from the suspect.
But some suspects will force officers to do things the hard way. If the handler has determined that a forceful apprehension by the K9 is warranted, then the cover officer should remain quiet while the handler is giving commands, so the K9 will know when to release.
When it’s time for the suspect to be handcuffed and searched, some handlers will command their K9 to be “on guard.” While the K9 has the suspect in his sights and is “on guard,” it is very important for the cover officer or any other officer to avoid running up to the suspect. The K9 may not take too kindly to this intrusion, and the approaching officers could be inadvertently bitten. The officers should wait until the handler says that it is O.K. to proceed. This way the handler has the opportunity to pull the K9 back and keep him under control. Then, rather than moving in a straight line to the suspect, the arresting officers should make a wide sweep out to the side and approach suspect slowly, always looking for danger cues from the suspect.
A key point to keep in mind is that if the suspect has been bitten, he or she might be bleeding at this point. Tell the handler that you need to put gloves on prior to approaching the suspect and that you will need to holster or sling your long gun in order to do so. The handler then can assume deadly-force cover until the suspect is cuffed and searched. In fact, the handler will be your deadly-force cover whether or not the K9 has bitten the suspect if you are the only cover officer.
Working as part of K9 team can be a thrilling and rewarding experience. The key is to communicate with the handler and follow his or her lead. Following the handler’s lead is not an ego trip on the handler’s part, but rather more like a captain steering a ship. Working together as a team will help each of you achieve the ultimate goal that we all have each and every shift—to go home safely to our families.
If you have a K9 unit in your department or you have worked with…
by Dave Bahde / Jul 17, 2013