Work of Dogs
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In the wee hours of the morning in Snohomish County, north of Seattle, Wash., a domestic-violence call comes over Officer Brandon McCullar’s radio—something about a man breaking his stepdaughter’s nose. He tells dispatch we’re on our way and tucks in behind another deputy’s car speeding toward the location. Lights flashing, knifing through the darkness, we seem to fly along the rural two-lane road. Up ahead, I see the other deputy take a hard, fast, right turn. We slow down. “Hang on, Lidar!” McCullar says to his partner, who’s standing on a special platform in the back seat. I take a quick look through the heavy metal screen and see Lidar looking straight ahead, alert and focused.
This is my second graveyard-shift ride-along with Officer McCullar of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and his K-9 partner, Lidar, a four-year old German Shepherd. I’ve become accustomed to the sights and sounds we encounter as we drive through the night, patrolling and responding to calls. My background in family law and domestic violence (DV) prevention means I also know that DV calls can be the most dangerous for responding officers. Tonight, I learn that DV calls often involve K-9 tracking if the abuser tries to run when officers arrive. Lidar is trained both to track and to take down fleeing bad guys. Maybe I’ll see him in action on this call.
I first met McCullar and Lidar in April 2010, when I went on a ride-along arranged through my office. I work as a deputy prosecutor in Snohomish County, in the Family Support Division, and have minimal, long-ago experience in criminal law. I’d always wondered what it would be like to ride along on patrol, so when this opportunity was offered, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Luckily, my first choice, a K-9 unit, was available, and I was assigned to McCullar and Lidar.
We met at a precinct building in the southern part of the county for that first ride-along. When I arrived at 8 pm, the precinct seemed to be deserted, but a few minutes later, a sheriff ’s car pulled up and parked several feet from where I waited in my car. As soon as the deputy got out of his car, I could hear loud, aggressive barking; this was my ride-along, and his K-9 partner was upset about something! Was it me? The deputy approached my car and we introduced ourselves, and I commented on the barking. McCullar said that Lidar barked at pretty much everyone, especially when he was left in the car.
We went into the precinct so I could get a bulletproof vest and an official green jacket with the word SHERIFF in big, yellow, reflective letters on the front and back, and sign a ride-along waiver. When we returned to the deputy’s car, Lidar was quiet. This was even more unnerving; what if Lidar didn’t like me? I took a deep breath, opened the passenger door and got in. The only thing I heard was a thumping against the back seat where Lidar rides. I glanced back to see Lidar furiously wagging his tail. When McCullar noticed the thumping, he laughed and said, “Well, let’s introduce you two properly!” I got out and stood beside the car. The deputy let Lidar out and he trotted right up to me, tail wagging, eagerly greeting me and smelling me all over. I was amazed at the way this trained police dog could so easily switch gears. I’d like to think it’s because I’m a calm, dog-loving person and Lidar sensed that. It probably didn’t hurt that I was wearing the jacket, and that his partner was with me.
Around midnight, we took a break. Parking near a field, McCullar brought out a throw toy for Lidar. He removed Lidar’s work vest, a signal to the big dog that he was off the clock, and tossed the toy. When McCullar walked back to the car, Lidar brought the toy to me. He didn’t drop it; he just looked at me, daring me to pull. After checking to make sure it was okay, I tugged and tossed the toy a few times for Lidar, marveling again at his seamless transition from work to play.
Because it was a slow night, McCullar called another deputy and asked if he’d help with some impromptu protection training for Lidar. That deputy had the unenviable job of wearing the padded protective sleeve that Lidar would bite when given the command to take down the bad guy. It was fascinating to watch Lidar run toward and launch himself against the deputy/ bad guy, biting down on the sleeve until commanded to release. Though braced for the impact, the bad guy standin was still nearly knocked off his feet. McCullar focused on Lidar’s response to the release command. It was clear that Lidar loved this training exercise. I asked the other deputy what it felt like to have Lidar clamp down on his arm. “With the sleeve, it’s not painful; there’s just a lot of pressure. But I’m always amazed at the force of his body weight when he hits me,” he said.
Later, we saw something that reminded me what precious cargo our canine companions are in our vehicles, and how important it is to contain them safely. We heard over the radio that a car had crashed into a house. When we arrived at the cul-de-sac, we saw a barrage of red-and-blue flashing lights from a fire truck, aid cars and police cars. Neighbors were standing around watching, and local dogs were barking. An SUV had crossed a couple of lawns and run into the front porch of a split-level home. The vehicle’s front end was completely crushed, and it was pinned under the pillars supporting the roof over the home’s entry. Several firefighters in full gear were moving around the vehicle, trying to extract the older female driver, whom officers speculated had suffered a medical emergency; she was conscious, but her legs were trapped. There was also a dog in the car on the passenger-side floor, and he wasn’t letting anyone close to the woman. Everyone agreed the dog wasn’t necessarily aggressive; he was simply scared out of his wits and doing his best to protect her. But he had already bitten a firefighter and a police officer and they couldn’t get to the woman until the dog was controlled.
Then, one of the firefighters had a brilliant idea: he wedged a plastic body board through the passenger door, placing it between the dog and woman and safely containing the dog. The firefighters were then able to use the Jaws of Life to cut away the driver’s-side back door and the driver’s seat so they could remove the woman from the car.
Seeing this situation made me ask McCullar what would happen if he were shot—what would Lidar do? The deputy said that if Lidar had already been sent to take the shooter down, he’d keep pursuing until he subdued the target or was shot himself. If he pinned the shooter and McCullar couldn’t give the command to release, it might be difficult for other officers to get Lidar to back off; Lidar is trained to release only upon his partner’s command. That’s why McCullar works with other deputies, giving training seminars so they’ll know what to do if this unlikely situation occurs. The deputy’s worst fear is to find himself incapacitated, with Lidar standing over him, protecting him and preventing responders from rendering aid. Clearly, it’s a scenario no one wants to contemplate.
Now, several steps behind and off to the side, I cautiously follow McCullar into the driveway of the house with the violent stepfather. Lidar remains quietly in the car, eyes on McCullar. The scene is chaotic: four cars are parked in front of the house and several young people are milling around, crying and hugging each other for comfort. The officer we followed and another who arrived after us ask questions, trying to get a bead on the situation. One young woman—the victim—is very angry; she’s yelling and has blood on her clothes. She storms into the house and slams the door. McCullar follows her, and I instantly worry—who knows what might be waiting for him in there?
Emerging from the shadows, a man of about 50, short and heavy, stumbles toward a vehicle with the driver’s door ajar. An officer quickly grabs his arm and speaks forcefully, telling him to stop. “F*** you,” the man responds, trying to shake the deputy off. He has blood on his hands, shirt and shorts. The officer calmly puts the man under arrest, cuffs him and reads him his Miranda rights. When told to stand so he can be transported to the precinct, the man goes limp and uncooperative. By now, McCullar has come out of the house, and says to the man, “Sir, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Will you help us get you standing?” The man’s reply is a string of obscenities. The two deputies drag the drunken, belligerent man by the shoulders to one of the other patrol cars and put him in the back. Looking around the yard, I notice a child’s red wagon full of potted geraniums decorating the front entry.
We get back into our car and Lidar relaxes. Then it hits me: not only is Lidar a comforting presence for McCullar throughout his work shift, but having a K-9 partner means you never have to transport drunks or murderers or other violent criminals to the precinct. No having to stop to pull the back seat out of your car and hose off whatever bodily fluids the suspect’s left behind. When I share this insight with McCullar, he smiles. “It’s just one of many benefits of being a K-9 team,” he says. If I were a cop, I’d definitely want a K-9 partner.
McCullar takes me back to my car at the South Precinct just before 4 am. I drive home, my stomach aching from tension, scenes from the night swirling in my head. All three of my dogs get big hugs.
This behind-the-scenes look gave me new appreciation for the work law enforcement officers do—patrolling our streets and handling enormously stressful situations, rarely receiving any thanks for their efforts. I heard a lot of raw language, dark humor and insider banter between the officers during my ride-alongs. Some people might find the gallows humor insensitive and callous, but I totally get it. They need to blow off steam. One of the ways McCullar does that is by throwing a toy for Lidar during their breaks, which strikes me as a good alternative.
A friend—a retired sheriff ’s deputy— had a K-9 partner who died in the line of duty, stabbed by a fleeing felon he tried to stop. Years after, describing what happened, my friend choked up and said he refused another K-9 partner because he couldn’t risk going through that pain again. My ride-alongs allowed me to witness how brave, strong, eager and willing police dogs are, working beside their human partners. It’s a 24/7 partnership—on the job and at home. The bond I observed between McCullar and Lidar is inspiring. I wish them both long, successful careers, followed by a well-earned retirement.
Image Credit: Shelle Singer