Beverly Hills Mayor Edward I. Brown did not have firsthand knowledge of drug trafficking in his city until two years ago, when a makeshift cocaine lab exploded in the house of a mysterious neighbor and brought the problem, almost literally, home to him.
Brown recalled the incident this week before the City Council approved a Police Department request for $5,000 to buy Ben, the city's first dog that will be trained to sniff out hidden stashes of cocaine and heroin in addition to burglars.
"This is really going to be an asset for the city's Police Department," Brown said, prompting Councilwoman Donna Ellman to respond lightly, "You might want to keep him out of your neighborhood."
Ben is a 75-pound, 3-year-old German shepherd brought to this country three months ago from Cologne, West Germany, where he was born and received his initial training. Ben is frisky, energetic and eager to please, but understands only commands in German. " Fuss means heel; sitz means sit and voran means attack," said Johannes Grewe, the Police Department's trainer.
Ben will be introduced to his new responsibilities gradually, Grewe said. "We will start with the regular training and then mix in training for narcotics somewhere down the road," he said. "Dogs are like humans. You can't throw too many books at them at one time."
Dogs are trained to uncover narcotics by being exposed to heroin and cocaine. "Training a dog to detect narcotics involves constant work," said Lt. Russ Olson. "The department will provide the narcotics but it will all be checked and rechecked to make sure that it is all accounted for."
No Marijuana Training
Ben will not be trained to find marijuana. "We feel it would be a waste of the dog's talents," Olson said. "We have concerns about sending a dog out and detecting a person with a joint in his car." Many cases involving marijuana are considered misdemeanors, while all cases involving cocaine and heroin, no matter what the quantity, are considered felonies, he said.
Olson said only special dogs can be trained to detect narcotics and track criminals. "Basically," Olson said, "you are looking for a happy dog who is ready to play fetch and find the ball. The concept of locating drugs is not that different. The dog wants to get a reward when he finds it. He wants praise, recognition, a pat from his handler."
"Ben is so playful and friendly you would hardly believe he is 3 years old," said Brad Cornelius, Ben's handler. "I took him home and my children immediately took to him."
Ben joins three other imported German dogs in the city's K-9 unit. Each dog is assigned to a police officer who has complete responsibility for the animal and who is supplied with a specially equipped car to accommodate the dog. The city pays about $75 a month for the upkeep of each dog and each handler receives a 5.5% pay bonus for the extra work required in maintaining the dog at home.
Because the bond between the dog and its handler takes time to cultivate, handlers are asked to defer all promotions and requests for transfers for three years.
Beverly Hills began its K-9 program in 1981 with the purchase of three American-bred German shepherds.
"The first three dogs we had all had problems with their hip joints. They were replaced with three German imports and we haven't had any trouble," Olson said.
Dogs chosen by the department have to be able to retrieve objects and remain steady under gunfire. They also should know how to follow verbal and hand commands. "There are times when, for your own safety, it's not wise to talk because you give away your position," Olson said.
People don't always understand that the dogs are there to help, he said. "During School Awareness Week, the dogs are often brought to school for demonstrations and to mingle with the children. We like to dispel the myths," he said. "They are not alligators. They are not attack or killer dogs. They are police dogs."
Though Beverly Hills police dogs are most noted for tracking down burglars under houses or up in trees, they have also won some awards. Boss, one of the city's dogs, placed first in a state championship and second in an international competition, Olson said.