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Ace and Officer Frank | The tip of the spear for Tukwila Police
Ace tracked the felony suspect to a creek along State Route 167, where he had submerged himself under water.
Suddenly, the 2-year-old German shepherd was on the man, who was combative and in no mood to give up. Ace’s training kicked in, grabbing the suspect’s arm with a single bite and holding him until fellow officers quickly arrived.
It was Ace’s first apprehension that June night as one half of the Tukwila Police Department’s newest K-9 team. It was a textbook track and arrest, one that proved immediately that Ace was ready to face real-life police work head on.
The transition from training mindset to real-life mindset can take months for some dogs, says Tukwila Police Officer Brent Frank, who as Ace’s handler is the second half of the team.
But Ace got it right the first time, showing their 500 hours of training “was great,” Frank said. They do it all speaking in German.
“It was great affirmation for me that he is going to engage a suspect when we find him. That’s a big deal for a brand new dog,” said Frank.
Through the first week of September, the team has made six arrests in successful tracks.
Ace and Frank follow in the steps of two K-9 units, Stryker and Officer Eric DeVries and Gino and Officer James Sturgill. Both teams received the Distinguished Service Medal from the City of Tukwila in August following the police dogs’ retirements from the police force.
That a police dog’s life on duty is dangerous is told in Gino’s story.
Six months on the job, during the capture of a robbery and assault suspect on June 15, 2009, Gino was stabbed in the neck. He recovered and returned to duty three weeks later. By the time Gino retired last October, he and Sturgill had captured 71 suspects.
Every time Ace leaps from the back seat of the patrol cruiser and Frank puts on his harness and 30-foot lead, he’s at risk, Frank said.
But in taking that risk, Ace is fulfilling his primary function - to keep officers and the public safe - often as the first officer to confront a suspect.
“He’s the tip of the spear,” Frank says.
Ace lives with Frank and the officer’s wife and their 10-month-old daughter in Puyallup. He has a 6-foot by 16-foot kennel at home, which he trades for a kennel in the back seat of Frank’s cruiser.
Ace gets a meal at about 3 p.m., letting Frank know about it if he’s late with his food. He’ll run around the backyard, until he hears the car start and doors opening. He waits anxiously at the back gate.
It’s time to head for work.
“He literally will drag me to the car because he’s so excited, because he knows where we’re going,” Frank says.
At the station, Frank puts a work collar on Ace, gives him some water and pets him. The set routine is important because it clues in Ace that they are at work now, Frank says.
Ace remains in the car while Frank is in the police station; he’ll occasionally come inside to run round and sniff the other officers to get to know them. If Frank and Ace don’t have calls immediately, they will go to a nearby parking garage for obedience training, such as heeling and sitting down from a distance. It’s a reminder Ace needs to listen to “dad,” as Frank refers to himself.
“They stay sharp if you routinely do those things, so it’s a perishable skill,” Frank says.
And the 2-year-old burns off some energy.
Then they’re off on patrol, just like other officers, but always ready to take K-9 calls. Frank doesn’t transport suspects, because Ace’s kennel fills the backseat, his “home away from home,” as Frank says.
“He loves the back of the car,” says Frank. “He’s very protective of it.” It’s where Ace waits on alert for Frank to give him the command to jump out. Frank also has a door popper on his uniform he can push if he’s too far away to open the door manually.
Their daily routine includes a bathroom stop for Ace, usually around 11:30 p.m.
Then the call goes out for a K-9 unit. Again, the training – and the trust – kick in.
“That’s something they really hammer into you during training, is trusting your dog,” Frank said. Ace has “special abilities” that humans don’t – the ability to catch and track a faint scent. Ace can find a suspect who would elude officers, even one a few feet way.
Every track begins with a start point – the suspect was last scene right here. Frank gives the command to find the guy, in German; Ace was born in Germany and received his early obedience training there, in German. “He doesn’t speak English,” says Frank.
Ace puts his nose down and when he finds the scent, he starts tracking. Ace might lose an old scent, which simply has disappeared. Or a fresh scent might end because the suspect is on a bus or was picked up in a car or is outside a police perimeter.
But as long as there is a scent, Ace will track. He’s on the 30-foot lead that lets him work a big area. Or Frank can rein him in, if they are in a backyard or need to go around tight corners.
If something distracts Ace, Frank tells him to ignore it, in German.
Ace is nearly always in Frank’s sight, perhaps going off-lead in a contained area, such as a greenbelt, and after Frank has given his warnings to the suspect that he or she is being tracked and he may get bitten by a police dog. Ace is still visible because of the blue strobe light on his harness.
Over the months of training and field work, Frank has learned to “read” Ace’s tracking behavior. If the scent is 15 or 20 minutes old, Ace has his nose to the ground and his tail wags as he leans into the harness.
If that behavior changes, Frank, as Ace’s teammate, helps him find the scent again – maybe the suspect has jumped a fence.
The scent can do “crazy things,” altered by water, a wall or a tree. Scent will climb a tree, then cast out 15 or 20 feet. Ace knows the suspect is close but can’t get “right to him, right away,” says Frank.
Eventually, Ace will find him, looking up in the tree and barking.
In other cases scent will pool, becoming stronger where a suspect is hiding under a building or bush. When Ace gets close, his head comes up. It’s called air scenting. The scent is airborne and Ace can smell it.
Ace will become excited, maybe bark a little. And he starts looking where his nose tells him to look. At this point Frank calls for his backup. The suspect is close.
Ace’s role has changed now. He’s found the suspect; now Ace has to apprehend the suspect if he doesn’t surrender. Frank gives his warning: come out with your hands up or you may be bit.
If the suspect refuses, Frank can send in Ace if the suspect is judged a danger to officers or the public, he’s hiding or if officers can’t see his hands.
Ace is taught a technique called bite and hold. He bites just once and holds on. He doesn’t bite a second time, nor is there any ripping and tearing, Frank says.
“It’s just like if someone grabbed you and won’t let go,” said Frank.
Ace is still in danger, but he’s helped ensure officers aren’t.
Even this is part of his training.
“He’s taught to be courageous,” said Frank.