San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cop’s Best Friend Noses Around for Evidence

She has a reputation among police as a tough investigator with a relentless drive to solve crimes. She’s earned it during her 13-year career with the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), one distinguished by numerous cracked arson cases.

She’s a yellow Labrador named Brenda.

The Tico Times met Brenda and about 15 other police dogs during a recent tour of  the kennels at the OIJ Forensic Complex in the mountainous Central Valley town of San Joaquín de Flores.

Ten of her new canine colleagues there, alongside 14 officers, recently attended a two-week training course given by Puerto Rican expert instructor Humberto Pagán and funded partly by the Costa Rican Drug Institute.

He taught them the latest police dog techniques used in the United States, including the “L pattern” method of orienting the dog for a search.

One OIJ official and his partner – a reddish dog of a breed resembling a small German shepherd called Belgian Malanoise – showed journalists how it’s done during a press conference held on the last day of the training.

In the L pattern, the dog faces the wind, allowing odors to reach its nose directly. The object or area in question, in this case a car with 125 grams of marijuana inside a plastic bag in the trunk, forms the base of the L. The dog begins by standing against the wind and then zig-zags to the area where it picks up a scent and makes a full circle around it.

When the trail gets hot and the dog gets a whiff of whatever substance it has been trained to detect, it sits, giving the signal for the officer to focus on that spot.

The final step is the dog’s reward, in this case a moment of playtime as the officer bounces a tennis ball. Most Tico police dogs are rewarded with food, but Pagán encouraged training them by using play as an alternative that doesn’t pack pounds onto canine bellies.

Basic Instincts

Dogs are ideal working companions for police because they “go where humans can’t go,” Pagán said, referring to their powerful noses. “They have about 220 million olfactory cells, while human noses have only about 5 million.”

The 10 dogs that underwent Pagán’s crash course will join dogs used by the San José Municipal Police, National Police and OIJ to sniff out drugs, bombs and liquids used to start fires as well as help catch unwieldy suspects.

Costa Rica’s police dog tradition began in 1994 with Rock, a yellow lab donated to the OIJ by police in the U.S. state of Maine, said veteran OIJ investigator Walter Vásquez.

The stocky, serious Vásquez has worked with the K9 unit since then and knows each dog by name. On a walk through the kennel, he shared other tidbits, such as their ages and how much food they get.

Rock now rests in peace under a shady tree outside the OIJ kennels.

He’s been followed by a slew of Labs, German shepherds and Belgian Malanoises, all large dogs chosen for their equally large noses, which pack more olfactory cells than those of smaller breeds.

Their playful personalities also make them good work dogs, Vásquez explained, while the dogs greeted him by barking, jumping and circling as he passed by their spacious cement-floored runs. Each is separated from the next by a chain-link fence.

“See how they’re all playful and anxious, always moving around? Those are some of the qualities we look for in dogs that make them good to work with,” Vásquez said.

Dogs must also be affectionate and eager to form a bond with their guides, explained Marcos Darcia, a 15-year San José Municipal Police officer who attended Pagán’s training.

“To work together there has to be a connection between the dog and the guide so the person can read what the dog is trying to say,” he said. Officers always work with the same dog and sometimes take them home to build the relationship in a different setting.

The bond between officer and dog is one based on the theories of conditioned behavior developed by Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, Vásquez explained. Animals are trained to respond to a stimulus. In the case of police dogs, the stimulus is either playtime or food.

Dogs naturally seek a boss, or alpha male, and the officer takes on this role during training. Also, dogs’ instincts to hunt and capture makes the job of searching and finding substances come naturally to them, he said.

Powerful Evidence

Evidence obtained with the help of police dogs is now used in almost all narcotics cases, according to Allan Fonseca, OIJ’s director of Planning and Operations.

“It’s an indispensable tool,” he said. “It’s been proven that the nose of a dog is so sensitive that it’s one of the best technologies we have in drug cases.”

It’s hard to say how many drug cases have resulted in convictions from evidence obtained by dogs because judges take multiple factors into account when making their decisions. But Fonseca guessed it’s almost 100%.

“Judges highly trust this evidence,” he said.

Many arson cases have also resulted in convictions after police dogs such as Brenda sniff the scene and point police toward flammable liquids.

A few dogs are also trained to detect bombs, although, “Thank God, we haven’t had any major cases in Costa Rica,” Fonseca said.

Bulletproof Vests on the Way

With memories lingering of the eight police officers killed in the line of duty during the past two years, the Public Security Ministry last week finalized plans to purchase 5,000 bulletproof vests in hope of preventing further tragedies.

The ministry is using about $3.2 million to purchase the vests from the Spanish company Fedsur S.A.

The police will replace the few vests in their inventory, which are old and almost unusable, said press chief Ricardo González. Because the country’s 10,000 officers work in two shifts, they’ll each be able to wear a vest at all times, if they choose.

The vests were scheduled to be purchased earlier this month, but Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal asked the Comptroller General’s Office for an extension to re-examine some parts of the contract, González said, explaining that the minister “wanted to be sure there wasn’t the slightest doubt the process was transparent.”

Last week, the ministry provided the office with additional paperwork and received the green light to go ahead with the purchase.

Most officers should have their vests by Christmas, González said, The first shipment of 1,000 vests, along with 600 helmets, is expected to arrive Dec. 17. The second batch of 2,500 vests should be here by Dec. 28, and the rest of the vests, as well as 10,000 police sticks, should follow in January.

Costa Rica was shocked last year when two young officers were killed in a shootout while attempting to intervene in the robbery of passengers on a city bus in west San José (TT, Aug. 25, 2006.) Cristian Zamora and Johny Hidalgo, both 24, became the fifth and sixth officers to be killed in action last year. Neither was wearing a bulletproof vest. The incident sparked a national dialogue on the urgent need for better police equipment.


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