Citizens Get Closer Look at Tackling Sebastian County Drug Problem

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Alicia Agent, web producer at 5NEWS, is taking part in an eight-week Sebastian County Sheriff’s Citizens Academy and learning about various aspects of the office. Click here to see photos of the academy so far.

She’s 50 pounds soaking wet and still fairly new to the force. But when it’s time to go to work, Asi, a two-and-a-half-year old Belgian Malinois, can stand up to male counterpart Enzo in the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit.

Members of the Second Annual Sebastian County Sheriff’s Citizens Academy got the chance to witness what the department’s K-9 unit can do firsthand Thursday night in Fort Smith.

With one German word, “sook,” the four-legged officers are ready to search. They searched a silver sports utility vehicle that deputies had placed illegal drugs in for the demonstration. 

Asi and Enzo are trained to find methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana and Ecstasy and give a “passive alert” if the scent is present. The dogs will sit or lay down, as opposed to barking, scratching or biting.

Deputy Randy White, who trained with Asi and has been patrolling with her for about a year, said she has a little different response.

“I call it her ‘happy feet dance,’” he said.

Asi

What’s her reward for a job well done? A little yellow ball attached to a rope, which the deputy keeps hidden until the K-9 makes an “alert.”

For example, if the K-9 “alerts” on the passenger side door of a vehicle, the deputy will bounce the ball against it, leading the K9 to believe that’s what she was looking for all along.  

Being a part of the drug task force can be extensive and intense work for a human officer, but to Asi and Enzo, it’s just another day to play.  

The illegal narcotics, as well as prescription pills, are a big problem in Sebastian County, said Lt. Allan Marx. The K-9 units are often used on traffic stops when the driver or passenger shows signs of drug use.

“They are walking search warrants,” Lt. Marx said.  

If the dog alerts, it’s fair game. Deputies can then search the vehicle.

The K-9s also defend their partners and help apprehend the bad guys. In a recent training exercise, Enzo alerted on a vehicle and the “suspect” ran away. Instinctively, Enzo took off after him, said Deputy Ron Decker. Enzo and his partner Decker have been working for the department for about a year-and-a-half.

Sebastian County K9 Units

 
The cost of purchasing and training the dog is about $10,000, according to Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck.

“But we are making drug dealers pay for this,” the sheriff said. The cost is offset by drug forfeitures.

While the K-9 officers are purchased from other states, even other countries (Asi comes to us from Serbia), they are trained locally by Officer Brian Rice with the Fort Smith Police Department.

Lt. Marx said it can take two weeks to a month to train the K-9s to recognize a scent. But it’s an ongoing process.  Deputy White and Asi and Deputy Decker and Enzo train on their days off, as well as about once a week with Officer Rice.

Asi and Enzo are well taken care of from their air conditioned personal space in the deputies’ sports utility vehicles to regular grooming. They even have badges.

The department uses Belgian Malinois, a shepherd dog, because it’s a “clean” breed, Lt. Marx said. The dogs are known to live longer and have less medical problems such as hip dysplasia than German Shepherds. The dogs are tested at the vet before being trained.

The K-9 units are just one of the many ways the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office is working to keep drugs out of the area. They visit local schools and work with school resource officers and students to prevent drug abuse.

In Sebastian County, there are seven K9 units. In addition to Asi and Enzo at the sheriff’s office, Fort Smith Police have four dogs and Greenwood Police have one.

The Second Annual Sebastian County Sheriff’s Citizens Academy kicked off Sept. 6. The class meets every Thursday to learn about the various parts of the sheriff’s office, from search and rescue to the detention center. If you’re interested in being a part of next year’s academy, contact the sheriff’s office at (479) 783-1051.