MN: Duluth police, DTA add bomb-sniffing dog to ranks

The newest member of the Duluth Police Department's K-9 Unit, Kallie is trained in detecting 15 different odors from potential explosive devices.

Duluth News Tribune, Minn.

Dec. 13--When officer Jeremy O'Connor places a harness on K-9 Kallie, it's her signal that it's time to go to work. 

Kallie darts toward a line of buses inside Duluth Transit Authority headquarters. The 47-pound black lab hurries around the buses, sniffing away in a "free scan."

When she makes a first pass without offering any signal, O'Connor slows it down for a detail search. This time, Kallie stops and frantically signals to the wheel well of a bus, finding an 8-ounce container of C-4 plastic explosive the officer had earlier hidden.

The newest member of the Duluth Police Department's K-9 Unit, Kallie is trained in detecting 15 different odors from potential explosive devices.

"There really isn't anything out there that we haven't had our dogs exposed to," said Sgt. Kelly Greenwalt, who supervises the K-9 program.

Kallie officially joined the department last month after completing a rigorous two-month training program with O'Connor, a community officer assigned to the DTA. The police and bus service have had a partnership for nearly five years, but it's the first time a dog has been paired with the officer.

O'Connor and Kallie work out of the downtown Duluth Transportation Center and are primarily tasked with promoting safety and security for the bus service and its customers, though they are available to respond to other 911 calls and provide explosives-detection services throughout the region as needed.

"I have had bomb threats on transit systems, and a lot of schools get bomb threats for whatever reason," said Phil Pumphrey, general manager of the DTA. "Part of our commitment to the community is providing not only a safe transit environment but helping out the police department and providing a service to the community."

Kallie's addition to the force comes with minimal costs to the DTA or the police department. The Irving Community Club provided the roughly $19,500 required for the purchase and training of the dog.

Kathy Resberg, the club's president, said it was an easy decision after January's tragic death of K-9 Haas, who was shot during a standoff at the scene of domestic assault call.

"We feel a need to protect and defend (the police) for what they do for us," Resberg said. "We need to put the money where it's going to do the best for the most people. This is one of those areas that our complete community club was behind."

Service goes beyond buses

Kallie, nearly 17 months old, is singularly trained in detection of explosives. Bred in Maryland, she placed second out of seven in her training class in the Twin Cities, beating out five other dogs working with handlers who had prior K-9 experience. Her sister also proved to have a superior nose, working as a narcotics dog in the prison system.

Duluth has two other bomb-sniffing dogs, but they work in regular patrol units and also serve the Tactical Response Team. That generally has meant waking up and calling in off-duty officers when there's a bomb threat or suspicious package that needs to be checked out.

Greenwalt said it made sense to team Kallie with O'Connor because explosives detection is most frequently needed during more normal business hours. She can be called upon to search virtually anything -- open spaces, rooms, vehicles, backpacks. She'll also work during major events such as Grandma's Marathon or presidential visits.

"It's a lot to handle for a patrol dog to be an explosives dog and a SWAT dog, so the long-term plan is to remove those things completely from patrol," Greenwalt said. "This is a good step in that direction."

O'Connor, who has been with the department for about six years, has spent the past several working with the DTA. He didn't expect the job to include dog handling.

"Maybe down the road in my career I was thinking about doing K-9, but when this presented itself it was too good of an opportunity to pass up," he said. "I was totally on board with the idea from the beginning."

Aside from Duluth, Greenwalt said the only other explosives-detection dogs in the state are based in the Twin Cities and Rochester, leaving a lot of ground to be covered by few dogs.

It didn't take long for O'Connor and Kallie to be dispatched. On their official day together after completing training, the duo was sent to International Falls to clear a school bomb threat.

Close partnership with DTA

The DTA already covers the cost of O'Connor's salary and benefits and will add in the stipend provided to K-9 handlers for miscellaneous expenses. The city's financial obligation is minimal -- mostly food and veterinarian bills.

Pumphrey said it's been a "tremendous asset" to have an officer assigned specifically to the bus service. O'Connor patrols the transit center but also visits bus routes and stops. He also works on the investigative side, often reviewing video footage of incidents or suspects who may pass through DTA facilities.

Pumphrey said O'Connor also works closely with DTA employees. He's provided training to drivers in safety and detection of human trafficking, while also teaching de-escalation techniques to a group of security guards the agency has hired to monitor the downtown facility.

"I've been at other transit systems where you have to call the police department and kind of explain what's going on or try to find somebody to come down and deal with it," Pumphrey said. "This is just a simple call to Jeremy. ... He's been a resource beyond just the typical kind of police work."

Greenwalt said O'Connor also has helped turn the DTA workforce into an extra set of eyes and ears for the police department.

"The bus drivers are becoming better reporters," he said. "When we get information from a DTA driver, it's usually complete information and they end up being good witnesses. They know Jeremy; they know the kind of information he needs."

Community engagement role

Long after sniffing out the C-4 on the bus, Kallie was still engaged in a vigorous game of tug-of-war with some visitors at the DTA headquarters.

That's a good sign. For police dogs, work is play. And as a smaller dog not involved in apprehension of suspects, Greenwalt expects the department will get 10 years of service from Kallie.

"You want a dog that never, ever, ever loses interest in that toy and is willing to work and work and work for that reward over and over again," Greenwalt said.

Like most police dogs, Kallie lives with her handler. O'Connor said she's gotten along well with a dog he already owned.

"She's just a regular dog at home," he said. "She always wants to come into work though."

Lt. Chad Nagorski, the department's east area commander, noted that the K-9s also have community-engagement duties, taking part in public events and visiting schools. He said it's nice to have a "floppy-eared dog" in addition to the more intimidating German shepherd and Belgian Malinois breeds that are typically associated with police.

"It's a good way to build relationships with the police department because just about everyone loves dogs," Nagorski said. "But there's a balance there. Her main job is to find explosives, and everything thereafter is just extra."

While O'Connor's work extends beyond the walls of the transit center, Nagorski said it's clear the partnership between the police and bus service has been mutually beneficial.

"His job is to help increase the perception of safety on the transit, not with just the riders but also with the drivers," Nagorski said. "I think that the relationship that we have built with them is really strong and he does a good job with that."

___

(c)2019 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.)

Visit the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.) at www.duluthnewstribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


More in Safety & Security