Amid many changes in police work over the past 50 years, one tactic remains mostly unchanged: using a trained dog to track down a bad guy.
That’s the K-9 unit’s most significant quality to retired Lt. John F. McGowan, who was in the first group of Norfolk K-9 officers in 1959.
McGowan and other current and retired officers and their families gathered Saturday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the unit.
“We have a K-9 corps that is still tracking, searching buildings, searching for bombs, searching for narcotics,” McGowan said. “It’s still going, and it hasn’t changed.”
The 50th-anniversary reunion was held at the Fraternal Order of Police lodge on Harmony Road in Norfolk. Betty Whittington, who has been the K-9 unit secretary since February 1977, helped coordinate it.
Retired officers told old stories and flipped through books of newspaper clippings and photos about what was originally known as the Norfolk Police Department K-9 Corps.
One of the original dogs, Rex I, was certified in court as an “expert witness” by a judge after he tracked down a criminal, McGowan said.
When McGowan’s own dog, Nip, wasn’t at work, he was the family pet. McGowan’s son tied the tan-and-brown German shepherd to a leash and then told other kids to hide in the bushes so he could use Nip to find them.
McGowan, then 30 years old, was the sergeant over the corps when it was formed in November 1959. The officers under him – Frank W. Cupp, David W. Emory, James W. Hinson and Robert L. Morgan – used German shepherds donated by citizens.
They spent eight weeks training the dogs at Langley Air Force Base, McGowan said. Then, the Norfolk officers and their dogs began patrolling neighborhoods on foot.
By 1962, the corps had 15 officers who eventually trained other departments.
The unit now has 19 dogs: German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and one Dutch shepherd.
The department buys the dogs now, said Lt. Harry Twiford, who oversees the unit.
Like the officers of McGowan’s day, the K-9 officers still take tremendous pride.
“You have to be able to work with a dog, and not everybody’s cut out to do that,” Twiford said.