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Cops' little helpers prove ready for holiday rush

By Greg Gelpi

There are no holidays for the Southern Crescent's youngest and smallest police officers.

While many workers are off, the eight K-9 units of the Clayton and Henry county police departments will be on duty and on-call around the clock.

Luca, a 6-and-a-half year old K-9 with the Henry County Bureau of Police Services, is hunkering down for the holiday stretch. The Henry County K-9 Unit constructed a new kennel for the Belgian Malinois dog, so that he can live with his new partner Officer Scott Gray.

The Henry and Clayton counties K-9 units employ general purpose dogs trained to detect marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin; protect their handlers; apprehend suspects; track down suspects and locate articles, such as weapons.

With the push of a button, a patrol car door can pop open and the K-9 will leap into action to aid his partner, Henry police department Sgt. Scott Conner, who heads the unit, said.

The K-9 officers and the K-9s work 10-hour shifts and man special events and law enforcement campaigns, Conner said of his unit. The holiday season doesn't mark a period of time off, rather a time of more work as traffic and crime increase.

Conner said the K-9 units make a "higher presence" because of a "higher propensity of violent crime" during the holidays.

The Clayton police dogs, part of the department's special operations unit, have been targeting areas with high concentrations of burglaries and robberies, Capt. Don Colburn, the commander of the Clayton County Police Department's Special Operations Division.

"It's not that we just throw them out there," he said. "We do our homework. We have a good analysis team."

The six officers and five K-9s are working anti-robbery patrol and surveillance during the holidays, trying to crack down on the crimes which regularly peak during this time of the year, Colburn said. If the K-9 unit can prevent a crime by making an arrest, then it has done its job.

The K-9s are "extensions" of police officers and serve as "extremely" important and "very, very valuable tools," Colburn said, adding that the officers "have a lot of heart."

"It takes a different breed, a special kind of breed, and not just the breed of dog," he said.

The dogs undergo two to three years of "constant" training and learn to associate the smell of narcotics with the smell of their toys, Conner said. When they search for drugs, they are actually playing a game, searching for their toys.

"These dogs aren't like your everyday pets," Henry County police Officer Mike Freeman said. "They love to work."

They are more than pets, Conner said, calling his K-9 Kai a "family member" and a "police officer." When they see the uniform, they know it's time to go to work and become excited and restless.

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that that dog would lay his life down for me right now for if he had to," he said. "Any of these dogs would die for their handler and never think twice about it. I love that dog just like one of my kids. You develop a really emotional attachment. Unless you're a K-9 handler, it's hard to understand the relationship with your partner and that's really what he is."

The Henry County K-9 Unit focuses on narcotics and laundering, Conner said.

Freeman said he has recovered "hundreds and hundreds of pounds" of marijuana as well as other drugs with his partner Falco.

"I love catching drug dealers," Gray said, explaining whey he became a K-9 officer. "That's it."