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A nose for the job

K-9 unit plays a big role in aiding SEACAD's efforts

Posted: May 23, 2012 - 11:08pm
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Investigator Rayme Vinson's police K-9 unit "Justice", born and trained in Germany, waits for his toy to be thrown during an outing on Thursday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Investigator Rayme Vinson's police K-9 unit "Justice", born and trained in Germany, waits for his toy to be thrown during an outing on Thursday.

Justice, like most German Shepherds, loves dog toys.

But unlike other dogs, Justice associates toys with the smell of drugs.

In fact, each time the canine drug detector sniffs out heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine or marijuana hidden inside a package, a vehicle, or wherever, Justice thinks a toy will magically appear.

And it does. Each time Justice “alerts” or “indicates” that drugs are present, his handler Rayme Vinson throws him a toy from out of sight.

“He lives for toys,” Vinson, a Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs drug investigator, said in a recent interview. “His whole life is chasing toys.”

Vinson and Justice have been an Alaska Department of Public Safety certified team for the past two years. Together, they have made innumerable drug busts, too many to count.

Vinson and Justice recently gave the Empire a live demonstration at the Alaska State Troopers office in Juneau. Dog toys, it seemed, were instrumental in the search.

It was only a matter of minutes before Justice sniffed out two small packages of heroin, hidden behind a television and a whiteboard. Ears perked and head strained forward, Justice eagerly sat and stared at the TV, waiting for a toy.

“He’ll stop and look at it, waiting for a toy to pop out,” Vinson said.

“We don’t want him to associate the toy with people,” Vinson added. “We want him to associate with the smell. So he stares at it, expecting that if he looks away he might miss the toy when it jumps out.”

It’s a drill 7-year-old Justice is familiar with — Vinson and Justice train about 2 1/2 hours a week ever since they graduated a two-month K-9 school in Anchorage in 2010. They are required to be re-certified each year, too.

Justice was originally bred and trained in Germany as a full-service patrol dog, capable of not just detecting drugs but also conducting tracking and searching for people.

Yes, Justice is a German Shepherd from Germany, which means he speaks — or rather, listens — in German. “Sitzen” is sit; “Platz” is lay.

“When you’re trying to tell the bad guy to lay down, you don’t want the dog laying down,” Vinson joked.

A federal grant administered by the city of Sitka allowed Justice to be purchased for about $10,000 several years ago, Vinson said.

Justice worked at the Sitka Police Department with another handler. Then Justice became solely a drug dog when Vinson joined SEACAD in 2010.

Vinson has been a dog handler since 1976, he said. He first became certified when he worked as a deputy sheriff in Montana. He was the first officer in the western part of the state to have a dog partner, he said.

“You start searching buildings late at night by yourself, a dog seemed like a really good idea,” he said.

Justice, who belongs to SEACAD, is the second dog Vinson’s handled.

The best part about being a drug dog handler? Easy, Vinson says: “When he actually finds stuff.”

Vinson explained Justice is brought in to search for drugs when authorities have reasonable suspicion drugs are hidden somewhere.

When Justice indicates, it usually means there is enough probable cause to obtain a search warrant to authorize opening and searching a package (or wherever the drug odor is coming from).

“A lot of times there’s no other way to get a search warrant to get in there,” Vinson said.

Without Justice, “There’s just a lot of stuff we wouldn’t get,” Vinson said. “You know something’s in there, but you can’t develop enough probable cause to get a search warrant.”

When Justice indicates, neither dog nor handler have any idea how big the drug bust could be. Justice doesn’t seem to care, Vinson noted.

“Because he associates it with a toy, he doesn’t care,” Vinson said. “It can be a freighter full, it can be a little tiny thimble. He knows there’s a toy hiding there.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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