Gwinnett police K-9s essential to apprehending suspects

New employees are always trying to make the very best first impressions. Even so, there is always a learning curve – specialized training can even take months. Not so much for one of the Gwinnett Police Department’s newest officers.

K-9 Sika recently made her first “arrest” just three weeks after joining the Special Operations K-9 Unit. She and her handler, Sergeant Brandon Townley, along with two other officers tracked down Nicholas Rohrer, a hit and run suspect who was hiding in a Norcross chicken coup.

Sika is a first of her kind for the department. The 16-month-old Hanoverian and Plott hound mix is trained “scent specific” as a search dog only. The remaining nine dogs in the unit serve as patrol dogs for apprehension and narcotics detection. Sika has the ability to track specific people by locking onto their scent from an item that belongs to them.

“We don’t know what we’re going up against and we’re always in a disadvantage because these people are in an ambush position every time we go into the woods,” said Sergeant Brian Doan who has supervised the K-9 Unit for the past 8 years. “These men throw danger to the wind, and they trust their training and trust their dogs and they go into the woods. It doesn’t matter who it is.”

Gwinnett Police Department has had its share of dangerous situations of late with at least two officer-involved shootings. In May, Gwinnett Police Corporal Aaron Carlyle and his K-9 partner, Kai, were shot at during an encounter with 17-year-old Levi Bryan, a suspect in an aggravated battery call near Lawrenceville. Kai, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois, was hit multiple times leading to the amputation of his leg.

“I expect that Kai will continue to heal and adjust to his new condition,” stated Carlyle. “Kai is strong and seems to be adapting very well. He is loving all the attention he gets at home and is in great spirits considering all he’s been through.”

While Kai may continue to make public appearances, the severity of his injuries will mean retirement from the force.

Dogs in the unit are purchased from vendors all over the southeastern US and range in price from $12,000 to $15,000 each. They begin their training with the vendor and then the handler comes to train with them at the vendor facility.

Once the dogs return to Gwinnett with their handlers, they receive ongoing training weekly for the duration of their careers. Local training involves setting up various scenarios including officers on the team hiding in the woods, sometimes for hours, while dogs are tracking their scent. Each human officer has the bites and scrapes to show for the training.

All K-9s stay with their handlers 24/7 and the two form very close working relationships.

“Often it can be difficult for the handler to send their dog into an unknown or dangerous situation but police K-9s have saved the lives of their handlers on more than one occasion,” stated Sergeant J.R. Richter. “Even though Kai’s injury will retire him from service, everyone at Gwinnett PD is filled with gratitude for Kai’s sacrifice because it means that Cpl. Carlyle was able to go home safely to his family.”

Gwinnett police coordinate efforts with other local law enforcement when needed. In addition to their own 10 dogs, Duluth, Lawrenceville and the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office each have four K-9 teams. Snellville has two and Lilburn has one active K-9 officer.

“Not only is it good to have someone with the experience of going into the woods and knowing the dangers, but also in Georgia heat we can only run our dogs about 20 to 25 minutes,” said Sgt. Doan. Sometimes one dog leads off and tracks a suspect to a certain point and then the scent is taken up by another dog. So far this year alone, the combined efforts in Gwinnett have apprehended about 80 suspects.

While Sika was still showing her puppy tendencies at a recent media event provided by Gwinnett PD she is rapidly growing into her valuable role.

“We have a search team with the county that goes out for Alzheimer’s or missing and endangered children,” said Sgt. Townley, Sika’s handler. “She [Sika] is now a member of that team also.”

In the meantime, the playful young Sika appears happy to receive a belly rub and a pat on the head for a job well done.