Officer Thunder

‘3 for 3 in Lincolnwood’                An original article by Judy Braginsky

     Find that marijuana tucked into the TV cabinet?

     No problem.

     How about the packet of cocaine wedged beneath the heating duct?

     Piece of cake.

     The talented nose of Thunder, the Skokie Police Department’s first police dog, is in its usual peak working condition. In short order, the 6 1/2-year-old German shepherd finds the drugs that were hidden about the conference room. He alerts his handler by vigorously pawing at the hiding places. His reward is a padded training baton to chew.

     Thunder is a small, wiry, sable-colored dog bred in Eastern Europe, and his crime-busting talents have won over many within the 109-member police department and beyond. After five years on the job, Thunder and his handler, Officer Victor Paez, have taken a substantial bite out of crime.

     Tonight, however, the K-9 unit carries out the drug search as a featured part of a Citizen Police Academy. The program provides interested Skokie residents with a 12-week course in police procedures and operations. Next week we will learn about gypsy crime from the police department’s national authority on gypsies. The week after, the SWAT team. This is the second session and is devoted to the K-9 unit. Right off, we’re asked not to pet the police dog.

     After Thunder makes short work of a perimeter search and alerts to the drugs (hidden about the room before the 22 of us arrive), he clearly yearns for more action, another job to do. Surrounded by an audience, he’s restless, wired, dancing around on leash as Officer Paez offers us a peek into the life of a working police dog.

     “Eighteen guys wanted this job as Skokie’s first K-9 officer and I got lucky,” Officer Paez says. “I got him when he was barely a pup and he’s more than paid for the $19,000 that the department paid to buy him, train him, and set up a special police van to transport him when we’re on patrol.”

     Thunder is trained to detect marijuana, cocaine, heroin, crack, meth amphetamine, ecstasy, and--as of last week--hallucinogenic mushrooms. He also will track human scent, search an area for weapons, do full building searches, protect his handler, clear a 9 ½-foot fence, control a crowd, and grab and hold a fleeing suspect.

     “One year he found 79 kilos of cocaine in an apartment (the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s biggest seizure that year) and $265,000 in drug money.” Another time, Thunder tracked and caught an escaped convict hiding in a river. “Occasionally, we help other suburban police departments when they need a search dog. We’re ‘three for three’ in Lincolnwood. And any time an officer gets hurt, and Thunder and I find the person who did it, it’s an extra plus.”

     The two work a weekly, 40-hour shift and are on call 24 hours a day. A temperature sensor in the K-9 van automatically pages Officer Paez when Thunder is inside and the temperature goes above 75 degrees.  The policeman carries a transmitter that will automatically pop open the back door of the police van when he needs Thunder immediately. When Thunder searches for an armed suspect, he wears a $1,100 bulletproof K-9 vest.

     “We train about 50 hours a month with the other north suburban K-9 units out at the Tops Canine Complex in Grayslake to keep our skills up. We have to pass K-9 unit standards each year.”

     The drug searches can be hazardous to a police dog’s nose. On duty, Officer Paez carries a K-9 trauma care kit with advanced equipment to treat problems, such as accidental drug ingestion as well as gastric torsion, poisoning, blunt trauma, and bee stings.

     By now, Thunder is resting, lying at the officer’s feet, when the police dog suddenly rolls over for a tummy rub, his four sleek paws paddling the air. He has decided we are not criminals. “A K-9 will put in 9, 10 years of service before he’s retired. When this happens, Thunder will live with me and my family permanently.

     “We’re leaving, and thanks for having us. No, don’t pet the dog.”