Gunnison Valley police
add K-9 unit to force
By Ben Lasseter
GUNNISON—The Gunnison Valley Police Department (GVPD) has brought a new four-legged member onto the force.
The GVPD board and city officials approved the purchase of a police service dog to help find illegal drugs on Sept. 21. The police department found a Belgian Malinois from Poland at a kennel in Dukedom, Tennessee. The dog’s name is Duke, and he spends all of his time in the field and at home with his handler, Officer Seth Hendrickson.
The officers decided to look into getting a K-9 about six months ago. Chief Brett McCall said the county never consistently had a K-9 program before, but the department could use one particularly for searches on I-70 and I-15.
“We have a fairly decent handle on the drug scene in town, but we do have a lot of trafficking,” Hendrickson said.
McCall said trafficking had “increased exponentially since COVID,” and “about 90 percent of traffic stops” on interstates near Gunnison are of people from outside the area driving through the region.
If an officer suspects illegal activity such as drug trafficking, he or she needs a warrant or probable cause to search a car. Hendrickson said officers around Gunnison could use the K-9 to establish probable cause in stops where they might otherwise have to let suspects go.
“To have a dog there immediately is going to open up a whole lot of doors for us.” Hendrickson said. “I hope we can get some stops right off the bat to advertise to citizens what he can do.”
Duke is certified in Tennessee to identify marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and MDMA, the compound found in ecstasy and molly. Hendrickson expects those certifications to transfer to Utah as soon as Duke passes required tests here.
The Belgian Malinois breed is known for its compatibility with law enforcement, especially for having naturally aggressive instincts. McCall said he considers the K-9 unit a “force multiplier,” meaning its presence on a scene is likely to make suspects comply with officers out of fear.
McCall also said with a drug-sniffing dog, his officers could conduct better searches in buildings such as schools.
Born in August of 2019, Duke is still in puppyhood. Hendrickson said having Duke with him full-time is “like having a kid.”
The dog’s training is reward-based. According to Hendrickson, when Duke does not have his red ball, he is eager to sniff out drugs. When he does, he can expect the reward of his chew toy.
“He’s scary-looking, but he’s just a playful dog,” Hendrickson said. Duke remains energetic throughout the day, and without his ball, he is extra rambunctious.
Hendrickson has raised other dogs before, but a new element to raising Duke is giving commands in German language. Instead of “sit,” “lay down” and “speak,” he must say “sitz,” “platz” and “gib laut.” This is partially a product of where Duke was born, but also common practice for police dogs so suspects can’t give verbal commands to confuse them.
Chief McCall noted that the Salt Lake City Police Department has put officers on administrative leave while investigations are conducted into K-9 bite cases. But the community should not worry about anything similar happening here.
For starters, he said, Duke is neither trained nor will he ever be used to bite people. McCall said single-purpose police dogs are easier to control and far less likely to hurt anyone.
Additionally, Hendrickson said the department will follow K-9 protocol strictly. Hendrickson will maintain a full-time partnership with Duke and he will have full command and control as a handler. He said some of the agencies under national scrutiny now had not been as careful in adhering to protocol.
McCall said the front-end costs for bringing Duke in came to around $15,000. This includes a car insert Duke rides in that can pop the car door open automatically.
Going forward, he expects their costs to be around $100 a month.
While Duke’s presence won’t affect average citizens much, it could help the police department find a lot more drugs
“People would be surprised how much is happening in their backyard,” Hendrickson said.