The most visible members of the Bloomington Police Department may patrol the city in squad cars or staff big football games, but there several branches of the which aren’t as high-profile. Today WFIU’s Arianna Prothero takes a ride along with the newly reinstated K-9 Unit.
The newest addition to the Bloomington Police Department… is of the four-legged variety. His human partner, Officer Jon Hoffmeister, has been with the force for 5 years. On this particular night, the two are sent out to work as soon as they clock-in. While navigating his squad car through busy traffic on Walnut Street, Hoffmeister explained it could be an eventful evening.
“Our narcotics unit, or Special investigations if you will, I guess they received information from one of their informants that there is a car coming back from Indianapolis with a substantial quantity of illegal contraband- I don’t even know what it is.”
Upon finding the car in question, Lesko starts barking in anticipation. But tonight, it’s fellow K-9 Officer Pongo’s turn to sniff out the drugs. His human partner, Officer Dana Cole, starts waving a white towel and soon the two are playing a rigorous game of tug-of-war. To the untrained observer, this may not seem like police work, but Hoffmeister said there’s more to it than meets the eye.
“We use a towel and fake throw a towel, the towel that Dana has,” Hoffmeister said. “So basically what it is, is that Pongo thinks that he’s looking for a towel. So if he indicates on this car, which would be by parking and scratching at the vehicle, then Dana’s going to throw the towel in there and we know that there’s the presence of some sort of narcotic substance in there.”
On their own, dogs don’t really care about drugs. However, they do enjoy a good game of tug-of-war. Over the course of their training, narcotics dogs are taught to associate the smell of a towel with all sorts of different kinds of drugs.
What does that have to do with Officer Cole and Pongo? At the scene Cole is using a scentless towel, so once he throws it into the car, Pongo will go in after it but he’ll sniff out the drugs instead because he’s been trained to think the towel smells like drugs. But that’s not all there is to it — both Hoffmeister and Cole have to be able to read their dogs’ body language.
The officers learn how to do this both during training and by watching their partners at home. It’s pretty standard in the industry for police dogs to live with their handlers. Cole said it takes a lot of time and patience to establish a good working relationship between dog and human.
“I’ve been told this by numerous people, it takes the handler and the K-9 a good year before they really mesh into a team,” he said. “You know, right now there’s a human handler and a K-9 but over time we’re learning things about each other, how we interact and work and everything, and we’re slowly becoming that team.”
Not Your Average Dogs
Pongo and Lesko aren’t your average dogs either. They’re pure-bred German shepherds, born and raised in the Czech Republic. Dogs of this caliber can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 if they come fully trained. That’s because there’s a lot of things Pongo and Lesko can do that their human counterparts can’t.
German Shepherds literally have a sense of smell that is tens of thousands of times better than a human’s. They can also run twice as fast as the average human. Lesko has even taught himself how to open Hoffmeister’s squad car door from the outside by hooking his long, thin nose under the door handle and pulling outwards. Hoffmeister said all of these attributes are extremely important to police work, especially in a college town which sees a fair amount of drug trafficking.
“Because they are a tool we can use. Everything we carry on our belt is a tool, you can’t put them on a belt but they are another tool on the belt.”
Both Hoffmeister and Cole are working to find creative ways to help pay for their dogs’ safety through grants and private donations. Recently, they discovered a non-profit that gives away bullet proof vests for K-9 officers. Sure, it’s extra work at the end of a long day, but Hoffmeister and Cole say it’s worth it knowing Lesko and Pongo would make the ultimate sacrifice to protect them and their community.