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When a criminal suspect meets Officer Jeff Stork’s partner, they often surrender quickly and some can show a scar from a previous encounter when they didn’t.
Stork is a K9 officer and his partner is K9 Storm, 4-year-old Belgian Malinois. With a speed of 38 miles per hour and the ability to clear a football field in 6 seconds, Stormy — as Stork affectionately calls him — isn’t easily outrun.
Storm can be very lovable at times, evidenced by his friendly lean on your leg when he first meets a friend to his master, but when it’s time to work he gets serious about what Stork tells him to do.
It’s that way with all the K9 officers at Johnson City PD, the Jonesborough Public Safety Department and Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
In Rio’s two years with Jonesborough Public Safety, he’s found more than 20 pounds of marijuana, significant amounts of cocaine and thousands in drug money while on patrol.
All K9 Officer Scottie Greene had to do was get Rio, his 4-year-old Belgian Malinois patrol partner, in the right situation to smell out the drugs. He’s all business when Greene tells him to work.
But if Greene pulls out the ball Rio loves to chew, he’s ready to play. Actually, Greene said it’s all play to Rio. He works to get his reward — his ball to chew on. And when he alerts on the smell of drugs, he’s promptly rewarded.
Both department’s programs and the one at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office have been in place a number of years. Johnson City has four dogs and Jonesborough and Washington County each had two until last month.
One of Washington County’s dogs recently retired after being diagnosed with cancer.
But until she began having trouble with her leg, K9 Scout was instrumental in numerous drug arrests, according to Deputy Lee Cross, her handler.
When a deputy called for assistance on a traffic stop in October 2008, Cross and Scout responded. Scout alerted on the vehicle and officers found $20,000 inside and with other evidence were able to make an arrest.
That led to another location where officers found $100,000 and a kilo of cocaine — all because of Scout’s sensitive nose.
Cross and Scout worked together about two years, but her career went back several more years and she had two other handlers in the department.
Deputy Kurt Sells and K9 Udo is the other K9 team for Washington County.
Udo, 9-year-old German Shepherd, is Sells’ personal dog.
“I own this dog. I bought him when I worked at Jonesborough,” he said.
Sells wanted to work as a K9 officer and began training Udo and received approval when he worked for the Jonesborough department to work toward certification.
Johnson City Officer Jeff Jenkins said his partner, K9 Marko is “like a 70-pound lap dog for me,” but the dog doesn’t warm up to others so quickly.
At home, Marko keeps his distance from Jenkins’ wife and children — and other animals, including Tigger, Jenkins’ last K9 partner who’s now retired.
Jonesborough Officer Mike McPeak is the newest K9 officer in the area — he just received his certification a few weeks ago and paired up with K9 Gregor, a 19-month-old Dutch Shepherd with six months of patrol under his collar.
JPS Major Matt Rice said the K9 program in Jonesborough is very community oriented, and it shows in the type of dogs they have.
“We focus a lot more on community relations type projects. I’m not saying that Johnson City and Washington County don’t,” he said.
But it’s obvious when you meet Rio and Gregor, then encounter the Johnson City K9s that there is a significant difference in their personalities and how they interact with the public.
Rice said Rio has “done an outstanding job in drug searches and tracking.”
He said the dogs really support and help pay for the program. Funds that come back to the town from drug seizures goes back into the K9 program.
“This type of program is not cheap,” he said.
One malinois ready to start patrol work can cost $9,000 or more.
But when the cost of the dog and its training, and the potential loss if the dog is hurt or killed is compared to the potential loss of an officer, Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry said there is no comparison.
“Even though those dogs become their partner, they all understand that dog is a tool. We’ve had a dog shot. Heaven forbid we didn’t utilize that K9 and end up getting an officer shot,” Lowry said.
“I have a great respect for the program and a great respect for the officers,” Lowry said. “Because of a dog’s extraordinary sense of smell, they can search a building in a lot less time than it would take a group of officers to do … they’ve found a lot of narcotics over the years,” he said.
Johnson City’s K9 program took a turn in the last year or so and all four dogs are pretty young, said Sgt. Eric Dougherty, who supervises the team.
Dougherty’s own partner, K9 Rex, another Belgian Malinois, is 3 years old, and during their year together Rex has detected a kilo of cocaine.
“We’ve had two surrenders where the suspect gave up” before Dougherty had to give the command to bite, he said.
Officer Rob Edwards has the most seasoned partner with 5-year-old K9 Cliff, still relatively young for a police K9.
But the two have had their share of exciting calls.
“He’s found about eight people on tracks and he’s had about 10 surrenders before I had to send him in,” Edwards said.
On one track, Cliff found a burglary suspect after sniffing him out through 200 yards of creek — and then having to bite him to get him to surrender.
In his two years with Edwards, Cliff has also been responsible for the seizure of a total of around $180,000 in drug money, Edwards said.
“He’s done a pretty good job,” Edwards said.
He agreed with Lowry that the dogs are tools for the officers.
“They’re not pets. Because of their training, it’ll cause them to do things that pets don’t do,” he said.
At the same time, Cliff is good with children, but not overly friendly.
Undue circumstances pushed Cliff quickly to senior status at the department.
“We just had some retire due to age and because of an injury we had to retire (another) one,” Dougerty said. Tigger, Jenkins’ former partner, was shot while working last year, but recovered from that and went back to work.
But earlier this year, his stomach flipped — a deadly situation for a dog if not treated immediately. Jenkins recognized his partner was in trouble and got him to the emergency pet hospital in time.
“He’d had a long career and had been through a lot so we retired him,” Dougherty said.
Normally, dog replacement would be spaced out further, so there would always be seasoned dogs on the road, but with the retirements and injuries, “all of a sudden, within a two to three year period we had to replace them all,” he said.
But it’s worked out well. All four dogs are working and doing their jobs.
Dougherty said the department uses Belgian Malinois because they are more readily available and they’re a good breed for the job.
These eight officers consider themselves luckier than their coworkers because they go to work every day with their best friend, who adores them and does everything they say — a friend that would lay their life on the line for the officer, but only on the officer’s command.
For these officers, it can be a blessing and a burden.
By Becky Campbell