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Sunday, Apr 20, 2014

St. Pete police getting dog to sniff out guns in schools

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The St. Petersburg Police Department recently won a $24,000 state grant to acquire and train a dog police administrators hope will be able to sniff out firearms in school lockers.

The police department’s proposal “directly addresses one of the most significant concerns of our time: illegal possession of firearms, and the expectation of law enforcement to proactively work to reduce the likelihood of gun-related violence, especially among the youth of our communities,” according to the police department’s application.

“There is never a time when there should be a gun in a locker,” said Assistant Police Chief Melanie Bevan. “This reduces the likelihood of gun-related violence.”

In addition to trolling school hallways for guns concealed in lockers, the dog could be posted at the entrances of high school football games to ensure no firearms are being brought into the stands, Bevan said.

Police dogs have long been used to detect and track drugs, bombs, human remains, people and shell casings. Dogs trained outside the field of law enforcement detect termites, bed bugs and cancer.

Police, though, aren’t certain whether a dog can detect a gun that hasn’t been fired in a while or that doesn’t have traces of gunpowder or cleaning solution — two substances dogs have historically been trained to detect, Bevan said.

“If I went out and shot a gun, I know we can train it to smell that gun that got shot a week ago,” the assistant chief said. “But can it smell something that has been shot some time in the past?

“We don’t know at this point.”

Jim Watson, the secretary of the North American Police Work Dog Association, believes a dog can be trained to do just that. And, he said, this wouldn’t be the first time a dog was trained to detect guns.

“If you pick the right dog and you got the right training, yes, you can do it,” Watson said.

“It will hinge on the quality of the training. If you wanted to teach a dog to find just human hairs, you could.”

What’s more of a concern is that, if an agency decides to train a dog to detect smokeless powder in a gun, it has to realize smokeless powder is also used in pipe bombs, Watson said.

A handler should be wary of having his canine nosing frantically through a locker when what the dog is really up against is a pipe bomb and not an unfired gun, Watson said. The dog could inadvertently set off the bomb.

“Safety is of the utmost importance,” he said.

The money that will be used to pay for a dog, train the dog and its handler, by way of

A Justice Assistance Grant from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will cover the cost of the dog, training it and its handler, modifying a police vehicle to transport the dog, food and veterinary bills for a year and a stipend for the dog’s handler. The money should be available as of Oct. 1, Bevan said. But it’s unknown how soon the department will get a dog or have it working in schools.

The police department has been offered a chocolate Labrador retriever for free, so it actually might be able to train two dogs. Police would use one dog in the schools where it has campus police officers working, and Pinellas County Schools would take charge of the second dog.

The agency is interested in a so-called floppy-ear dog, such as a bloodhound or Labrador retriever — one that will do its job unobtrusively, perhaps while students are in class, Bevan said.

“We’re looking for a dog with a soft approach,” she said.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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