Hot on the trail of a fresh scent, Sam weaves his way across the pitch black Sammamish street.
Deputy Chris West sprints closely behind the 19-month-old German Shepard, leash in one hand and flashlight in the other.
With his nose to the ground and tail pointed skyward, Sam stops and barks to alert West of a piece of evidence — a large hammer — in the grass.
It’s not long and Sam is back on the scent, bolting down Stan Chapin Way towards Eastlake High School. The long-haired Shepard targets a dark corner where he finds his prize hiding behind a utility box. Under his handler’s direction, Sam latches onto the perp’s arm, subduing the suspect all while ending another textbook training session by the King County Sheriff’s Office K-9 unit.
Scenes like this aren’t rare on the Plateau — in fact, they’re quite common. Since opening its new Eastside precinct in June 2012, the King County Sheriff’s Office has trained a handful of dogs and operated multiple “tracks,” four nights a week in Sammamish neighborhoods.
It’s a location they consider ideal.
“There are lots of trails and lots of foot traffic, so when we’re training at night there’s all kinds of smells,” said Sergeant Jeff Flohr, K-9 supervisor for the county. “It’s pretty amazing when you take into account all the people who have been out during the day.”
On the same note, Flohr wants the public to know they are completely safe around the dogs.
“We are so confident in what we do, in our training, we’re doing it live,” he said. “The dogs came across several citizens last week and they were just like, ‘you’re not the person I’m tracking.’”
Recent television news reports focused on a pair of alleged maulings by a Lakewood Police Department dog in 2010 and 2011. Fair or not, the reports have generated negative attention to other K-9 units in the region.
Deputy Randy Potter, a certified trainer and handler, is responsible for teaching all seven human and canine members of the KCSO team — a group whose coverage spans from Shoreline to Federal Way. He makes it clear that biting is the last resort when it comes to tracking a suspect.
“The primary focus of the dog is a locating tool and it’s a use of force option after that,” he said.
All KCSO handlers and dogs are required to have 400 hours of training. In that time they undergo obedience, tracking and man/bite work. Each handler also brings his dog home with him where it doubles as a family pet.
“Once we get out of the car, we’re done with our work day,” said West, who is transitioning to his fourth work dog, Sam. “If we need to go back to work instantaneously, the dogs always know, ‘hey dad’s going for his uniform, the closet’s open, it’s time to go.’”
Deputy Clint Herman was just brought on to the K-9 team three months ago after doing “quarry,” or pretend bad-guy work the last seven years. He was given 3-year-old Atilla, a German import, who along with Sam will be the newest additions after they complete training. Herman has two young children at home, a 3-month old and a 2-year-old.
“He knows when he’s at home and he knows when he’s at work,” said Herman, showing a cell phone picture of his 2-year-old son using Atilla as a bean bag chair. “He likes to lick and play. He’ll knock you over by rubbing up against you because he wants you to pet him.”
While the KCSO dogs have a soft side, they have also maintained efficiency when on the job. Flohr said that’s been a trend for the organization, which has had roughly 50 dogs since starting its program in the ‘70s.
He said the overall bite ratio for the KCSO is 12 percent, and some months its zero. The capture rate is 48 percent, meaning the dogs locate the suspect ever other time they’re deployed. Recent high-profile cases include tracking six violent escapees from the Echo Glen Children’s Center and the capture of a Monroe Correctional Complex escapee in North Bend.
Flohr attributes his unit’s success to several factors, from training hours all the way down to a high quality vendor in Snohomish.
“We want dogs that are just as good with the public as they are catching bad guys,” he said.
In the meantime, Sammamish residents can feel a little safer knowing there’s an extra set of eyes and ears — human and canine — patrolling the streets at night.
Deputy Chris West follows Sam, who tracked a scent down Stan Chapin Way during a simulation last week.
Sam latches on to the quarry, or fake bad guy, at the end of Stan Chapin Way.