Dogs make a difference: Clovis K-9 unit gets bad guys off the street

Clovis Police K-9 Jax and his handler Brent Drum. Jax is one of five canines on the force. Valerie Shelton/Clovis Roundup

With a little more than 100 officers, the Clovis Police Department is touted as the best law enforcement agency in the Valley. Over the last year, however, the crime fighting prowess of the department has increased with the help of a few four-legged friends.

After the recession, the department sadly had to cut its previous K-9 force of apprehension dogs, but last year thanks to a tremendous outpouring of support from the community, it reinstated the program with five new canines—Corda, Jax, Mika, Bolt and Nova.

Lt. Dan Sullivan said it’s amazing how many tough criminals on the street, who would ordinarily put up a fight, have surrendered once they get a glimpse of a canine officer.

“I’ve had the biggest baddest gang members on calls and when you bring in a canine, they aren’t worried about the cops anymore, they are worried about what that dog is going to do,” Sullivan said. “It changes the entire dynamics of the call without doing a thing but showing up. Even a K-9 unit arriving, well-marked with the stickers on the vehicle, calms everything down. I tell people the dog will key in on the loudest person in the bunch and no one is loud anymore. They understand that police officers have rules. But I think one of the effective things is they know this is an animal that has its own mind and if I’m loud or if I fight, the dog could break loose at any moment. I think that is a deterrent for many people.”

Keeping that in mind, though, Sullivan said although these dogs take a bite out of crime, they are not vicious and dangerous like many people think. In fact, he said the canines on the force are some of the friendliest dogs.

“There is a misconception that these dogs are mean and bite everybody but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Sullivan said. “When they actually have to bite someone it’s because they are resisting. It’s play for them because they are using prey drive. They know when someone is being loud and agitating. When the handler says that’s the bad guy, they focus in, run up to them, bite them and hold onto them until the officer gets there. It’s just a game to them.”

K-9 handler Brent Drum has worked with canines for the past 12 years and has partnered with three different dogs. At his previous agency, he worked with a German Shepherd and a female Belgian Malinois, and for the past year he’s been handling Jax, also a Belgian Malinois.

“It’s not personal,” said Drum. “There is a psychological side of the dog from the wolf pack and they hunt prey and this is another avenue of their prey drive. I can put on that bite suit or bite sleeve and they will bite me. Then, when we’re done I take it off and I’m the same person. I walk right up to that dog right after he finished biting me and love on and pet that dog and he’s wagging his tail.”

Belgian Malinois dogs, Drum said, have an excessive amount of energy in general, but Jax has an energy that is off the charts. On the swing shift, from 2:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., Jax might go on up to five calls that involve searching, reprimanding a bad guy, or just showing up to be that backup. In between, Drum will take breaks with him and throw a ball around to release some more of Jax’s energy. Even then, though, when Jax goes home and gets in his kennel, he has to play with his bowling ball—the only toy he hasn’t completely destroyed—for at least a half an hour before he’ll go to sleep.

“He never ceases to amaze me,” Drum said of the two-and-a-half-year-old Jax. “The search we just did was actually a difficult search. It was a really narrow area and he was able to navigate it. I’m pretty confident he can do anything I ask him to do now. He knows his job and what he needs to do when I ask him to do it. It’s rewarding to work a dog and get him to that point where I’m comfortable. If someone is hiding in this house, I know he is going to find them.”

Though the duo has been on many calls where Jax has been a great assist, Drum recalls one scary situation in particular where Jax stepped up between him and the suspect and saved the day.

“The suspect he was apprehending for me immediately went to his waistband and that tells me he’s got a gun or something – and that is scary. That can be taken a lot of different ways like is he going to try and kill me right now? The beautiful thing about dogs is they have to trust that the handler is going to keep them as safe as possible but they will do anything for you and never hesitate. That is pretty powerful,” Drum said. “For that apprehension, I had given commands and the suspect was running from police and hopping fences and I pop out with the dog and tell him to put his hands up and he does to a certain degree but he’s behind a four-foot trash can. I tell him to put them up higher because this guy is known to carry weapons and he goes to his waistband so I sent Jax to apprehend him and he did great.”

Apprehension canines are also used for finding suspects in hiding, by sniffing out the hot scent of where that suspect recently was. With his last canine, Drum said he remembers one scenario where she had to search an extremely large cotton gin warehouse and ultimately, she was able to discover that two burglars were hiding on the roof of the office portion of the building.

“They didn’t have any weapons but it was pretty scary because if they did we could have been ambushed,” Drum said. “That is why the dog is a great tool and they save officers. It takes a dog a lot less time to search. There are so many benefits to having the canine.”

In Drum’s opinion, being a K-9 handler is the best position in law enforcement, but it does require a love for dogs and a significant amount of extra training and time.

“As a K-9 handler you have a four-legged animal with you who has his own brain and needs to be cared for just like a baby during work and after work,” Drum said. “It’s a commitment that can’t be taken lightly. It’s a lot of work, love and patience.”

The bond that forms, though, is well worth the extra time.

“This dog will never hesitate to throw itself between the officer and danger and that bond is indescribable,” Sullivan said. “It’s your partner and you want to do everything you can for the dog because it’s going to do everything it can for you.”

For Drum, the bond with Jax was instant.

“I’ve been around handlers in my career with French dogs and you listen to these commands and they make you laugh so I told myself I would never have a French dog. But when I saw Jax and I saw the way he worked, I grabbed a hold of him and truly was love at first sight,” Drum said.

In addition to the five new apprehension canines, the Clovis Police Department also has one narcotics dog, springer spaniel Murphy.

“Our narcotics dog is trained on several different types of narcotics,” Sullivan said. “He does what is called a passive alert. When he smells the odor, he will sit really still until the handler gets there and he points his nose right at it. We use him sometimes when we have a search warrant if we know someone is selling drugs. We bring him along and he can find extremely small amounts of narcotics that we wouldn’t know are there. We search cars, help out storage places with an exterior search, parcel searches to see if someone is shipping narcotics, and other agencies call and ask for that too. Murphy is well trained on several types of narcotics like meth, heroin, marijuana, and cocaine.”

The five apprehension dogs, on the other hand, are not cross-trained to detect narcotics, they are simply trained to apprehend and search for suspects. One type of canine the department doesn’t have is a tracking canine that can search for missing persons, bodies and the like. While getting a tracking dog isn’t out of the question, Sullivan said in urban areas it is difficult to use a tracking dog when there are so many scents in the air. There also aren’t enough cold cases in Clovis to warrant getting a tracking dog. Having another narcotics dog, on the other hand, would be of huge benefit since Murphy is always being called upon.

“I think we would consider getting another narcotics dog because there is plenty of work,” Sullivan said. “We find that’s a deterrent too. If you are going to use or buy or sell drugs in Clovis, well we have some dogs that can sniff that stuff out and find stuff we can’t. Like if we have a routine traffic stop and no reason to search the car and the dog alerts on it, well now we do. I would say the more narcotics dogs we have the better.”

The next step for the K-9 unit now, however, is getting it’s new training facility up and running.

The new, 14,000 square-foot fenced in facility, also funded through public donations, will be located behind the Pelco by Schneider Electric building in the space already being used by Clovis Fire Training. Much of the fencing, lighting, and grass was donated by local companies. In addition to the grass area, the K-9 unit will be able to use Clovis Fire’s existing structure to mimic scenarios where the dog would need to search a home or apartment complex.

“It is really important to be able to put the dogs in environments so they get used to them so when we’re out in the field the dog doesn’t go in somewhere and think they haven’t seen this before. So we put them in different sized cars, attics and crawl spaces. You want the dog to experience all that,” Sullivan said. “The more variety, the better.”

The K-9 training facility should be up and running sometime this summer.