Officer Brian Laas remembers the scene with vivid clarity – it was earlier this fall, and he, along with his four-legged partner Rudy, had been called to a home in suburban Denver with a warrant for the arrest of one person who lived there.
Inside, the Arvada Police officer found a home so disheveled, it was difficult to take a single stride without stepping on the piles of clothes, food, trash and dog feces strewn across the floor. Rudy was there to sniff out the suspect. He found her hiding at the back of the garage, under piles of clothes and trash that nearly reached the ceiling.
“It’s a condition that most people couldn’t imagine living in, to work through that to find somebody,” said Laas.
There were also used needles, knives and drugs – loose narcotics – scattered amongst the filth and on the furniture.
Situations such as this can be dangerous for officers, and especially for their canine partners. That’s because the drugs police are finding on the street – heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil and others – have become terrifyingly potent. So potent that merely touching them or inhaling just a few grains can be deadly for both humans and dogs. The risk of inhalation is especially high for police dogs, because they use their noses for a living.
“When these dogs go to work … they sound like a little vacuum going – all that inhaling, so all it takes is a few of those grains (of drugs),” Laas said. “You’re constantly afraid.”
Rudy has had scary interactions with drugs before – Laas is always ready to rush him to the nearest veterinarian. But thanks to a new statewide initiative, he may not need to. Colorado is aiming to equip all 120-plus police canine teams there with Narcan.
The nasal spray carried by many first responders to reverse an opioid overdose in people, is now being carried by police officers to use on their own dogs.
“We’re still trying to be cautious, it’s just giving me the insurance that if there’s (drug) exposure, I have an immediate response, which then gives (Rudy) a better chance of survival,” he said. “It’s definitely something that I am very grateful to have.”
Laas is also the president of the Colorado Police Canine Association. He says Colorado officers haven’t had to use Narcan on dogs, but they’re now trained on how to use it. It’s just like humans, but with a few extra precautions.
“It’s very similar to a human that you would put it through the nose,” he said. “Of course, we have to put them in a muzzle because when they do come to, a lot of times they can be very aggressive and lash out thinking somebody hurt them, and so their response can be to bite somebody.”
Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration put out a nationwide warning to police about the dangers of fentanyl for officers and dogs. In October 2016, three K-9s in Broward County, Florida, executed a narcotics search warrant and were rushed to a vet after their handlers noticed overdose symptoms, according to the Broward Sheriff’s Office. They were listless, disinterested in water or attention and weren’t able to stand. Two canines were treated with fluids and another with Narcan. All three were able to return to work the next day, and none experienced lasting effects.
Laas is aware of the risks. Aside from the potential loss of an animal that he refers to as his child, police dogs are expensive – it can cost upward of $30,000 for a single fully trained animal, he said. Narcan costs $37.50 per dose.
Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is behind the initiative. “Being a dog person, it was certainly a no-brainer to me that we needed to do this,” she said.
According to Coffman, half of Colorado police canine units have Narcan already, and she hopes all will by the end of the year. She quotes the total price tag of the initiative around $10,000 – a figure she says pales in comparison to the cost of losing an expensive police dog.
“It’s a small price to pay if you save the life of a human being or a dog,” she said. “Other jurisdictions have lost canines to drug overdoses … I’m just happy that we’ve been able to act in advance of it happening with one of our Colorado canine officers.” Ad Feedback Ad Feedback Ad Feedback
Many drug searches turn up little or nothing
It is difficult to determine precisely how often Louisvilles K-9 dogs alert to drugs when none are found, in part because canine handlers inconsistently record their search results.
For example, some marked searches that turned up only marijuana “shake” — stems and leftovers — as “narcotics found,” while others listed them as just the opposite.
In an analysis of 139 searches since Jan. 1, 2017, in which a dog indicated that drugs were present, 45% turned up no narcotics.
About half of the searches that yielded drugs found only marijuana, mostly in small amounts, including single joints, partially smoked “roaches” (the remains of a joint or marijuana cigarette) or shake.
Other searches, however, conducted after so-called exterior sniffs of vehicles, turned up heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine. Fourteen found firearms.
Arrests were made after 42 searches, and a dozen drivers or passengers were charged with trafficking in controlled substances.
Although most of the drug caches found were small, on Aug. 3, 2018, a K-9 named Franklin jumped through an open window of a Nissan Frontier stopped at Interstate 65 at Interstate 265 and alerted to an odor on the rear floorboard, where police found 3 pounds of tar heroin, 2 pounds of crystal meth, 54 grams of fentanyl pills and a loaded handgun.
Nelson Acosta-Angulo and Juan Carlos Gonzalez-Estrada were both charged with enhanced aggravated trafficking, charges that are still pending.
Jessie Halladay, an LMPD spokeswoman, said even searches that find no drugs — she calls them “unproductive responses” — can be effective: Guns were found in half a dozen instances in which no narcotics were located, the database shows.
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Canines alert to the presence of narcotic odors by barking, pointing, jerking their heads or wagging their tails.
A canines alert during an exterior sniff is important because it allows police to search a vehicle without obtaining a warrant.
The U.S. Supreme Court held in 2005 that the use of a “well-trained narcotics-detection dog … during a lawful traffic stop” does not violate the Fourth Amendments protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The ruling came over the objection of dissenting Justice David Souter, who wrote that the “infallible dog … is a creature of legal fiction.”
The Courier Journal’s analysis of 28 canine-handler teams found that one of them was nearly perfect — narcotics were found 10 of 11 times after the dog alerted — while drugs were found in only four of 14 searches triggered by another canine team.
But the high court ruled in a more recent case, in 2013, that a dog’s performance in the field is irrelevant as long as it is “certified” once a year by a bona fide canine organization based on reliability tests in a controlled setting.
“If the dog alerts to a car in which the officer finds no narcotics, the dog may not have made a mistake at all,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a unanimous decision. “The dog may have detected substances that were too well hidden or present in quantities too small for the officer to locate. Or the dog may have smelled the residual odor of drugs previously in the vehicle or on the driver’s person.”
Halladay said LMPDs canines are certified annually and follow a rigorous protocol that requires at least 16 hours of training a month.
She noted that in least eight searches in which no drugs were found, the driver admitted either to having just smoked marijuana or to having drugs previously in the same location where the dog alerted.
Exterior sniff searches by the numbers
Jan. 1, 2017 to April 5, 2019, Louisville Metro Police Department
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