Beasts with a Badge

New Orleans police officer Harold Chambliss has the ideal patrol partner. He never argues. He always lets Chambliss drive. He takes the lead during every hot pursuit, but lets Chambliss soak up the glory if they catch their suspect.

All Chambliss’ partner asks for in return is some raw hamburger and a chance to play fetch with his favorite ball. Chambliss’ uncomplaining, good-natured, workaholic sidekick is Max II, a fawn-colored, black-faced Belgian Malinois, one of nine apprehension dogs in the New Orleans Police Department’s K-9 Division.
“We have a great bond,” Chambliss says. “We’ve been together for four years now. He knows my every move.”

Not only is dog man’s best friend, but also in law enforcement he’ll take a bullet to prove it. Horses play a much different – and more stoic – role in modern policing, but like dogs they’ve become indispensable police companions. 

Mounted and K-9 units have been a part of military and police forces since Roman times. Horses were a staple among sheriffs in the Old West and, today, they’re common in even the most urban of police settings. The NOPD has 24 of them.

Beasts with a BadgeOfficer Dave Waguespack, a 21-year veteran, rode a police mount for six years until 10 years ago, when he became the division’s trainer. His experience on horses before he found his calling? None.

“I was a city boy,” says the New Orleans native. “I was just curious, so I tried it out.”

Now Waguespack knows the subtle habits and preferences of all the NOPD horses, including Apollo, Buster, Buck, Satan, Hand Grenade, Whiskey and, his favorite mount, Rocky. It is a stable of big, tall horses, mostly warmbloods, selected for agility, calm temperament and ability to block out distractions.

“We need a horse to be comfortable enough for an officer to shoot a gun from on top of his back,” Waguespack says. “It’s really not natural, just like it’s not natural for a horse to go through a crowd of thousands of people at a Carnival parade.”

In addition to major events, the mounted officers work regular patrols in the French Quarter, CBD and neighborhood crime hotspots. The assignment is highly sought after and the training is as rigorous as any specialized unit.  

Beasts with a BadgeAlthough Waguespack spends his working days training and tending to horses, he rarely deals with the animals outside of work. Yet his favorite day each year is Mardi Gras, when he sits atop Rocky, his 1,500-pound dappled gray mount, at the front of the Zulu and Rex parades.

“To be a part of that is a feeling of elation,” Waguespack says.

Dogs play an even bigger role in modern-day police work. Used to pursue escaped slaves in ancient times, K-9 units today are vital in law enforcement, trained to detect drugs or explosives, pursue suspects and even investigate arson. A dog’s sense is so keen – 50 to 100 times that of humans – some undergo fine-tuned training to detect currency, firearms, land mines, agricultural products or human stowaways.

The nine dogs used by the NOPD are primarily used to sniff out and catch suspects, according to Capt. Clarence Hebert III, commander of the Mounted and K-9 Division. All are Belgian Malinois, strong, husky animals resembling German shepherds but with calmer dispositions. The breed has recently overtaken shepherds and Rottweilers as the police dog of choice. At the NOPD, all the dogs are cross-trained in either narcotics or bomb detection, Hebert says. All of them live like kings.

GOING HOME
    
Take Max II. Not only does he get to work and play with his favorite person in the universe, he hasn’t shown one sign of jealousy over the tattoo that stretches across Chambliss’ right biceps: an ink rendering of Max I, his predecessor.

Beasts with a BadgeTo say that Chambliss is a dog person is an understatement. He trained Max II. He works with him every day. And when they’re not working, he takes him home to his family, where Max II is just as pampered as any favorite pet. All of the NOPD’s police dogs live with their handlers, Hebert says, and the officers adopt most as full-time family pets once the animals retire.

“My wife loves him,” Chambliss says of Max II. “He’s very docile at home.”

Most importantly, if Chambliss ever finds himself in danger on the job, Max II will do anything – even risk his own hide – to save his handler. 

“If we’re looking for a suspect, he senses the adrenaline in the air,” Chambliss says. “These dogs save a lot of guys’ lives, sometimes just by getting an armed suspect to surrender before there’s a human confrontation.”

Max II recently dodged bullets, tear gas and a concussion grenade to help corner a suspect during a SWAT roll at a FEMA trailer. By Chambliss’ count, the trailer case was one of more than 100 successful apprehensions by his four-legged partner: “He’s getting a reputation around here. He’s becoming a senior dog.”

The department’s K-9 trainer, Sgt. Randy Lewis, has been with the unit nine years. He admits the assignment didn’t come naturally.

“I actually wasn’t a dog person before I joined,” Lewis says. “My mom worked at the SPCA and she was always bringing home strays. I was tired of dogs actually.”
But a desire to expand his police repertoire compelled Lewis to try out for the unit. A quirky little dog named Oscar kept him there. They met at a kennel, where most police dogs are privately bred for law enforcement work.

“We went to select dogs for training and this little guy came up and bit me,” Lewis says. “He looked up and started wagging his tail, but when I didn’t react he kept nipping at me. I thought, ‘Now that’s a cool dog.’”

Other K-9 officers describe the selection of a partner in equally idiosyncratic – and sometimes mystical – terms. A handler may look for a certain spirit, or calmness, or even a particular ears-up, head-cocked reaction to a voice command. But all K-9 officers say the selection process is critical.

“It’s a keen skill,” Lewis says. “There’s something about a police dog. They work for praise, but they don’t always need all that petting and rubbing. A lot of times, they just lean against you. They trust you that much.”

Lewis’ latest dog is Phantom, a smaller-sized Belgian Malinois who got his name because he would constantly disappear in tall grass during training. Since Lewis was promoted to trainer, he doesn’t ride fulltime with his furry partner but takes a break from his 6th District platoon at least once a week to keep their relationship sharp.

The uncommon relationship between officer and dog is obvious during training. The K-9 officers are plenty affectionate with their animals, but not in a pet-the-belly, rub-behind-the-ear, lick-lick kind of way. The exchange is often more gruff, more macho. A handler will pound on the dog’s side loud enough to deliver an audible thump-thump. The dog will snarl playfully, then let out a surprisingly loud bark to express pleasure.

In training, both dog and officer turn resolute. Training has to be as close as possible to actual line-of-fire conditions, Lewis says, because the dogs don’t differentiate between playtime and the real thing. In fact, all police work is “play” in the minds of the dogs, it just happens to be a serious form of it.

WET SNOUT

The Belgian Malinois are trained to respond to voice commands in either Dutch or French, a throwback to the breeds’ European roots. Lewis says the end result is often a bit “Creolized.”

“All of us mangle the language in our own special way,” Lewis says.

K-9 training is an intensive process that can last up to four months, a critical period in which dog and officer form an inseparable bond. The initial drills are held at the police department’s Mounted and K-9 compound in City Park, a large green space shared by horse stables, an exercise track, commanders’ trailers and equipment buildings.

Beasts with a BadgeThe open-air compound is ideal for scent training. One of the ultimate tests of a dog’s uncanny sense of smell: taking a pen cap with his master’s scent and sticking it in the ground. In knee-deep grass. More than 100 feet away. Once a dog can routinely find a two-inch pen cap, the thinking goes, his finely tuned wet snout can catch the scent of just about any suspect. K-9 officers swap stories of how their dogs routinely find bad guys under houses, on rooftops, in wooded areas and, sometimes, tucked away in attics, hot water heating sheds or wall spaces.

The K-9 units perform regular patrol duties, but are always on call for pursuits, SWAT calls and drug raids. The units answer three to eight calls a day but like many elements of police work, the pattern of calls is irregular and unpredictable. During slow periods, the dogs must be kept sharp, so the K-9 officers don heavy burlap and Kevlar “training suits” and, using their distinctive voice commands, let the dogs bare their teeth and pounce. When the dog performs, it’s time to play fetch.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer Jack Lee doesn’t play catch with his dog Floyd. Lee rewards his five-year-old Labrador retriever in the form of a tug-of-war game with his favorite ratty, chewed-up towel.

“You always let the dog win,” says Lee, a 22-year Customs veteran. “That’s his favorite thing in the world.”

Unlike the NOPD dogs, CBP dogs are strictly used for scent detection, says CPB K-9 trainer Nancy Bonnaffons. But the training and police work is no less intense. After rigorous tryouts, the dogs are selected for specialization during a 13-week training program at the CBP academy in Virginia. The livelier dogs are trained to detect contraband in cargo. If there’s a presence of illegal material – usually narcotics – the dogs give a “positive response” by digging and chewing to get at the stash.

Beasts with a BadgeThe dogs with more laid-back temperaments are trained to give a “passive response.” They detect drugs hidden by ship passengers by calmly sitting next to the drug-wielding suspect or their luggage.

Floyd is a positive response dog. He has sniffed out drugs hidden deep in ship cargo, despite smugglers’ best efforts to mask the scent with materials such as coffee, fabric softener, motor oil or just layers and layers of packaging. Lee says Floyd once detected 20 pounds of marijuana – a relatively small amount for smuggling – despite the drugs being wrapped in cellophane, covered in mustard and hair dye and buried in Styrofoam peanuts. Floyd has also found drugs hidden in railroad ties, lychee nuts and stashed in secret compartments in wooden furniture.

“He doesn’t distract easily,” Lee says. “People will come up and want to pet him, but he just wants to work. He wants to please.”

What Lee really means is that Floyd wants to please him. Like all K-9 teams, the bond between dog and handler is paramount, although Customs dogs spend their nights in a kennel rather than going home with their handlers.

“As a cop, you have a partner every day,” says Lee, who worked for years with human partners in his prior jobs with NOPD and Louisiana State Police. “Well, Floyd is my partner. He knows my voice, my mood. He knows what I expect of him.”

Approaching six years old, Floyd is considered a veteran and, like his handler, is nearing retirement. Lee has the option of adopting Floyd once they both call it a career. He demurs when asked if he’ll take Floyd home as a pet eventually, even though his colleagues know he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think we’ll have a retirement party for the both of them,” Bonnaffons says.

And when the day comes, Lee will continue to play tug-of-war with Floyd as a family pet; just as he did with  Midnight, his previous K-9 companion. “If there’s reincarnation,” Lee says, “you want to come back as a Customs dog.”

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