The Elizabeth City Police Department K-9 Unit was training hard last week, preparing Officer Caleb Hudson and his new dog, a German shepherd named Nero, for certification next month.
This time, Hudson had donned a protective suit and walked to the middle of a vacant ball field behind the Elizabeth City Boys and Girls Club.
As Hudson played a fleeing suspect, Baska, another German shepherd, chased him down on Officer Grady Edwards’ command and bit hard on his calf muscle. Hudson went to his knees.
Nero watched and barked from Hudson’s nearby patrol car.
Nero is one of five police dogs donated to K-9 units by the North Carolina State Highway Patrol after it disbanded its K-9 force last year. Nero was the one Elizabeth City wanted most, said Officer Glen Needham, supervisor of the department’s K-9 Unit.
A North Carolina state trooper caught on video kicking his police dog last year drew national attention and forced an investigation. As a result, the Highway Patrol gave away its German shepherds trained for drug sniffing, apprehension and searches and will re-establish its K-9 unit with Labradors used only for drug sniffing, said Capt. Everett Clendenin, spokesman for the Highway Patrol.
Despite the bad publicity about the Highway Patrol unit, Nero is well-trained and gentle around people, Needham said. But when commanded, he can aggressively apprehend a suspect. Nero was not the dog abused in the video.
“We are so glad to get Nero,” Needham said. “He’s a wonderful, smart dog.”
Nero brings the Elizabeth City K-9 Unit to four dogs, the most ever in a program that started about 20 years ago.
On a routine traffic stop, a dog gets a “free air sniff” around the vehicle, Needham said. If he smells drugs, that gives police probable cause for a search.
“It can go from speeding to recovery of narcotics to weapons and then a positive identification of a gang member,” Needham said. “It happens a lot.”
Training is more about practice with rewards. Handlers and dogs have an affection for each other, Needham said. Handlers use a collar that pops when pulled to get the dog’s attention. Commands are given loudly in German.
“We do not choke our dogs,” Needham said. “We do not kick our dogs. We do not abuse our dogs.”
Police dogs are trained to sniff drugs, apprehend suspects and conduct searches. Including training, each dog costs more than $10,000, said Joan Ellis, a member of a residents group that raises money for the K-9 Unit.
One of the biggest reasons the group formed was the effectiveness of police dogs in making arrests of gang members, she said.
Police dogs can be more effective than hiring another officer, said Debbie Leete, a member of the fundraising group. Leete also operates a dog search-and-rescue business with her husband.
“Their presence alone and the reaction people have to them makes a difference,” she said. “Those guys back down.”
The residents group is holding a jail-a-thon Wednesday, mailing out more than 300 volunteer arrest warrants, Ellis said. Bail will be $100 each.
Baska was bought with money donated by the group raised by earlier fund raisers.