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K-9 officers battle narcotics (video)

By By Caty Hirst - CHIRST@VICAD.COM
March 7, 2013 at midnight
Updated March 8, 2013 at 9:09 p.m.

Kelly Gibbs, 44, goes to open the door as her dog Robby, 6,  alerts her that he needs to go inside to search during a training run in Victoria. Gibbs and Robby work as a certified K-9 team. Gibbs regularly trains Robby by having him seek and find different types of drugs such as cocaine, meth, heroin and marijuana in new environments.

The series

• Feb. 24 - A patrol officer balances family, job

• March 3 - County jailers live among criminals

• Today - Victoria K-9 units battle narcotic use in Victoria, see below

• March 17 - Victoria firefighters become family

The officer clambered out of the Victoria police patrol car, eyes focused and alert on the job ahead.

His body quivered with excitement as he ran eagerly ahead of the other officers, occasionally glancing back, his eyes pleading with them to hurry.

K-9 Officer Robby, a 60-pound Belgian malinois, was ready to find the illegal narcotics hidden from everyone - everyone but him.

"They may fool me. I may not smell the weed because all the cigarette smoke in the car. But it's not going to fool the dog, no matter how much you do it," said Officer Kelly Gibbs, 44, Robby's K-9 handler.

Gibbs, an officer in the Victoria narcotics division, said she has complete faith in Robby's ability to alert on methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, marijuana and ecstasy.

"A dog smells different. When we smell a hamburger, we smell what we smell - a hamburger. The dog smells each individual ingredient in the hamburger, to the flour that was used, to the egg, to whatever was used to make the bun, to the meat, all the flavorings in the meet, salt, pepper whatever you put in there. ... He breaks it down; everything is individual," Gibbs explained.

The department brought back the K-9 program in 2008, putting Robby and Baco, a German shepherd, on patrol. Sgt. Eline Moya said the department had discontinued the K-9 unit in 2005, when the last K-9 died of old age and funding ran out.

Officer Jason Stover, 32, Baco's handler, said the dogs have been invaluable to the narcotics division since they were moved from patrol to the special crimes unit in 2011.

From 2010 through 2012, for example, the dogs' alerts were responsible for officers making 149 drug-related arrests and seizing $1.38 million, Moya said.

Stover said both Robby and Baco were purchased for about $15,000 apiece, training included, with money donated to the department. Now, however, the program is self-supporting and the department purchased another Belgian malinois in November from the dogs' forfeiture funds.

Despite their successes, Stover said, he was initially nervous to bring home a trained attack dog to his wife and young daughters, now ages 2, 3 and 7.

But he said he and his wife quickly realized the one who should have been nervous was Baco.

"They beat up on my dog, actually. He runs from them," Stover said, laughing at the thought of his babies scaring the trained attack dog. "He has been good from day one; I could not have asked for a better family dog."

And Baco has become part of the family, Stover said, taking orders from his wife and playing with his children.

"He was very interested when the second one was born. He would just sit and watch her rock back and forth, back and forth. My wife was freaked out at first, but I knew he wasn't going to do anything. He had just never seen or smelled a baby before," Stover said.

Stover said he probably spends more time with Baco than anyone else, from his wife to the other members of the narcotics division.

"He is more satisfied in my car for 10 hours doing nothing than he is sitting at home alone. He will chew up my stuff out of anger," Stover said, laughing.

And so Baco rides in the police car with Stover all day or night, and Robby rides with Gibbs, both with a modified kennel in the backseat, complete with fans, water bowls, food and bullet-proof vests.

"We say we are bringing them to work, but it is just play to them. They associate the smell of the drug with their toy and being able to play," Stover said.

When the dogs alert on a narcotic, Stover and Gibbs throw a chewable toy for the dogs to play with and enthusiastically lavish them with praise.

The dogs, their work finished, concentrate on destroying their plastic toy while the other officers go to work getting warrants, making arrests and collecting evidence.

George Filley, defense attorney and retired Victoria County criminal district attorney, said K-9s are a useful tool for law enforcement agencies, adding he personally prosecuted multiple cases where K-9s found probable cause.

"It was very valuable, but at times we had questions arise to the reliability of the animal. Sometimes we were able to go forward with the case and sometimes, after the result of the hearings, we could not go forward," Filley said.

That is why maintaining the reputation of the dog is vital, Stover said, and means he is cautious to make sure his dog does not falsely alert.

Both dogs are certified by the National Narcotics Dog Detector Association, Stover said, and must pass re-certification tests regularly.

It is legal in Texas to use the dogs to obtain probable cause, Filley said, but two cases currently awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court, Florida v. Jardines and Florida v. Harris, will set national standards for using drug dogs for probable cause and required training and certification for dogs and handlers.

"It depends on the reliability of the animal and the circumstances of the search. There is no definite answer; each case is a separate occurrence and a separate consideration from the one before. Everything has to be taken as a totality of the circumstances," Filley said.

Criminals recognize the dogs' abilities. Part of a small unit fighting narcotic dealing and usage in South Texas, Robby and Baco can be targeted just like officers. Stover said gangs and drug cartels have singled out both dogs and human officers for hits.

"You can't fight the inevitable. If it is going to happen, it is going to happen," Stover said.

The daily struggle, the officers said, is not necessarily in the danger they brave, but it is facing how narcotics have shaped and warped generations, especially children.

It is because of that harsh reality, Stover said, that it doesn't bother him that he isn't allowed to share most of what he does at work with his wife or even other officers.

"There is a whole world you don't share. It wouldn't do any good to try to explain it to them anyway because they weren't there," Stover said. "I don't think everyone should be so cynical about society."

Still, Stover and Gibbs said, they wouldn't want to do anything else.

"There hasn't been a day when I didn't want to wake up and come to work," Stover said, especially since Baco gets to ride with him every mile.

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