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Myrtle Beach Police Pfc. Kenny Harlow and his K-9 partner, Roscoe—one of the top police dogs in the Southeast—team up to sniff out drugs.
Photo by Milton Morris
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Horry County Police Sgt. Craig Hutchinson and Cara
“If these dogs ever learn to drive, I’m out of a job,” says Horry County Police Sgt. Craig Hutchinson, who handles K-9 Cara, age 8. Like her fellow narcotics dogs, Cara can detect even trace amounts of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, hashish, marijuana and ecstasy. And she doesn’t need a warrant. “The Supreme Court has upheld that sniffing free air is not a search,” Hutchinson says. “The air is not your private abode.”
Photo by Matt Silfer
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Myrtle Beach Police Cpl. Chris Smith and Alli
There’s a popular myth circulating that police get their dogs addicted to drugs, and that’s what makes them search. Smith, Myrtle Beach’s 2014 Officer of the Year, scoffs at how many people actually believe it. “Two micrograms of heroin could kill a dog,” he says. Partnered with Alli, a black German shepherd donated by the Myrtle Beach Women’s Club, Smith supervises the K-9 unit. At age 9, Alli is the department’s senior K-9.
Photo by Matt Silfer
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Horry County Police Cpl. Jeff Hamilton and Bizi
German shepherd Bizi, 7, handled by Horry County Police Cpl. Jeff Hamilton, is a “bomb dog,” trained in the detection of explosives. The team is often called in to sweep airports and hotels prior to the arrival of high-level Washington folks—they can’t say whom, of course. Bomb-detection teams try to fly under the radar and often work in plain clothes. “People think I’m just some guy with a dog,” Hamilton says. “We don’t talk about how many calls we get. We don’t let anyone see the equipment, and we don’t tell them which odors the dogs can detect.”
Photo by Matt Silfer
Hiding somewhere in Horry County’s impound facility, amid row after row of confiscated vehicles, there’s a tiny stash of heroin wrapped in Kevlar and tucked in a Crown Victoria. It’s Roscoe’s job to find it.
Myrtle Beach Police Pfc. Kenny Harlow watches his partner’s nose surf the bumper of the unfamiliar vehicle and disappear behind a wheel well during a morning training drill. Roscoe’s tail starts wagging double time as he strains harder against his taut leash. Like a child on Christmas Eve, his excitement is palpable. As Roscoe details the car with his paws, his nostrils begin quivering with the scent. He knows he’s close.
Suddenly, his tail stops in mid-wag. Roscoe sits statue still, quietly staring at the spot where officers will find their heroin, which he couldn’t care less about. When they score their prize, Roscoe gets his. One ratty tennis ball coming right up.
No matter how much you like dogs, if you’re in possession of an illegal substance, you don’t want to meet Roscoe. With a nose that’s 10,000 times more sensitive than any human’s, he is trained to detect five narcotic scents, track suspects and find weapons a perp might try to hide from officers. On his last recertification test, the purebred German wirehaired pointer scored 299 out of a possible 300 test points (though Harlow thinks his dog rightfully earned that last point).
By many accounts, Roscoe is one of the top police dogs in the Southeast. His sniffing power has helped the Myrtle Beach K-9 unit track dozens of suspects, seize drugs and cash and get illegal weapons off the street. Roscoe’s nose recently led to the arrest of a known gang member in possession of marijuana, crack, cocaine, meth and heroin. Police also seized $1,160 in cash, a stolen handgun and a Dodge Charger.
Friendly, scruffy Roscoe doesn’t look the part of a formidable, four-legged officer of the law. Big Bird would have an easier time intimidating a bad guy. In fact, suspects being placed under arrest on the K-9’s say-so have been known to protest.
“We hear it all the time at traffic stops,” says Harlow. “People just laugh and say, ‘What is that? That’s not a real police dog! It doesn’t count.’ ”
Just another homeless puppy
Don’t bother looking for heroic German shepherds or acute Belgian Malinois in Roscoe’s lineage. He wasn’t imported, and he didn’t arrive certified and street-ready like many of his peers. He was rescued off the street by animal-control officer Rebecca Ewing.
“Normally, he would have gone to the county shelter. He was so adorable and tired, he fell asleep in my lap,” says Ewing, who fostered him for a while. “No one came looking for him or called about him.”
Ewing named him Roscoe and showed him around the police station, figuring someone might adopt him before he went to the shelter. Word of the adorable pup—a massive head and four giant paws attached to a tiny body—reached the Street Crimes Division.
“They weren’t really looking for another dog, but the lieutenant was in the process of revamping the canine unit,” says Ewing.
Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall did some research on the breed and liked what he read—smart hunting dogs with keen noses and the agility to work on any terrain. “I had a feeling he was special,” says Gall.
When Roscoe had sufficiently grown into his paws, he was transferred to Custom Canine Unlimited, the Atlanta area training facility that supplies Myrtle Beach with certified police dogs.
“At first, I was worried that it would cost more than buying a street-ready dog. There were so many variables and unknowns,” says A.J. Vargas, who runs the training facility.
The department considered Vargas’ caution but had total faith in Roscoe. “If it started to go bad, they’d have a great department mascot,” Vargas says.
Roscoe had a strong affinity for tennis balls, so the trainers put one inside a sock and let him chase it around to hone his prey drive—the instinct to chase something that’s moving.
“Then we build an association with an odor,” Vargas says. “Methamphetamine and cocaine mean nothing to the dog, but we build meaning around those odors. The dog has to think: ‘When I find that odor, it’s always pleasant. I’ll get a reward. I’ll please my handler.’ ”
A perfect match
K-9 units are composed of law enforcement officers—the human kind—who team up with specially trained dogs. Harlow was new to the Myrtle Beach canine unit when he met Roscoe but had plenty of experience with hunting dogs. The first week he paired up with his new partner in K-9 school, he knew he had a keeper.
“Roscoe’s very loyal and hardworking, but you can’t treat him with a heavy hand,” Harlow says. “You can’t yell at him or snap the leash. He’ll shut down. I have to correct him with a firm command, then back to praise. He needs to be loved on. A lot of times, he’s working just for that.”
The secret to every successful K-9 team is the indelible bond that forms between the animals and their human partners, who must manage the care and feeding of their dogs between shifts. After any chase, Harlow goes over Roscoe with a fine-tooth comb, checking his paws for burrs and his body for scratches, cuts or injuries.
“It’s not for everyone,” says Harlow. “There’s three times as much paperwork as normal. You’re responsible for grooming, nail trimming, ongoing training, maintaining indoor kennels … there are no dirty habitats.”
“It’s a huge commitment—taking on a dog that starts working around 3 or 4 and may live 16 years. They are work animals, not pets, but they become family,” says Cpl. Chris Smith, who supervises the Myrtle Beach K-9 unit. “The desire to please and drive of the dog depends on its partner. If the original handler and dog get separated, it’s usually hard to get the dog to bond with another handler.”
A bark worse than his bite
In some parts of South Carolina, law enforcement agencies rely on K-9s to physically apprehend suspects. Some dogs even wear bulletproof vests. Along the coast, K-9s are primarily used to find narcotics and explosives and to track people, but not for apprehension work, where the dog is trained to bite and hold a suspect.
“We’re a family beach,” says Capt. Kevin Heins, who commands the Myrtle Beach Police Uniform Patrol Division and champions expanding the K-9 teams. “We don’t need that fierce ‘bite dog’ mentality. We’re not that kind of agency.”
While Roscoe isn’t trained as an apprehension dog, he does have a skill that comes in handy during tense situations.
“Roscoe is the only K-9 we have that will bark on command,” says Harlow. “He’s so loud, it sounds like a 200-pound wolf is ready to eat you.”
That bark convinced two suspects in a car theft to come out of their hotel room, when repeated requests from the police had failed. Harlow showed up with Roscoe and had him deliver his booming baritone. Moments later, the door cracked open, and two sets of nervous hands slipped through, ready to surrender.
“That’s why the dogs are such a great asset. You want it to end peacefully, with no one getting hurt,” says Harlow, who also extols his dog’s PR value. “In today’s climate, people don’t always trust someone wearing a police uniform. Roscoe helps kids at an early age learn that we’re here to help. We hate hearing parents tell kids that we’ll take them to jail if they’re bad. That’s the last thing we want.”
Protecting K-9 officers
Life isn’t all tennis balls and head rubs for working K-9s. It’s dangerous work, particularly for apprehension dogs that race after criminals in perilous situations.
Richland County K-9 officer Fargo was killed in 2011 chasing down an armed-robbery suspect. The Belgian Malinois was shot three times while protecting deputies. Fargo was reportedly the first K-9 in South Carolina to be killed in action.
In October, Deputy Brandon Surratt—father of three—and his partner, Hyco, a top-certified K-9 with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, were pursuing suspected carjackers who fled from a traffic stop. One suspect fired at police, mortally wounding Hyco, who had survived a previous attempt on his life and apprehended more than 100 suspects during his six-year tenure.
Some 1,500 mourners attended the German shepherd’s memorial, including Surratt’s heartbroken young daughters and K-9 teams from Myrtle Beach. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” says Myrtle Beach Police Pfc. Kenny Harlow, who attended with Roscoe. “I can’t imagine what Surratt was going through.”
Lt. Sheila B. Cole, public information officer for Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, was overwhelmed by the community’s outpouring of love for Hyco. “The citizens realized these dogs are there to protect them, too.”
Six months after Hyco’s death, Surratt went to Columbia to urge South Carolina lawmakers to enact stiffer penalties for harming police dogs.
“Hyco absolutely saved my life,” says Surratt, who now works with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Department. “A harsher punishment for those that harm police K-9s is something South Carolina needs. They are so much more than just a tool. These dogs are a huge asset to every community and deserve to be protected.”
Harming a police dog or horse is a currently a misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison or fines up to $1,000, but Hyco’s death prompted South Carolina legislators to raise the stakes. If the bill passed by the Senate in May becomes law, guilty parties will face fines up to $30,000 or up to 10 years in jail and community service. They’ll also be responsible for the cost of replacing the animal.
Trained police dogs start around $8,500, but the price to produce a team like Surratt and Hyco can’t be measured in dollars alone, Cole says. They were among the top certified units in the country, winning the American Police Canine Association’s President’s Award for Professional Excellence in 2012.
“It’s high time we stiffened the penalties,” says Cole. “These dogs are valuable tools for law enforcement. They’re officers. They have badges, and they are members of our family.”