By Chris Hendrickson, Contributing Writer
The Sky Valley Citizens’ Academy is moving into its sixth week and thus far has received an extremely favorable response from attendees.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office is hosting the academy, which was coordinated by Snohomish County East Precinct Lt. Monte Beaton. The academy, which began on February 6, takes place every Thursday evening from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Sultan Middle School and each week focuses on different aspects of law enforcement. The 13-week series will end on May 1 with a graduation ceremony and a visit from Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary.
Approximately 60 Sky Valley residents signed up for the free academy, passing the necessary background check, with attendance fluctuating slightly from week to week. Different law enforcement personnel volunteer their time each week to focus on things like traffic enforcement, patrol procedures, media relations and much more.
Gold Bar resident Steffany Sears has really been enjoying the academy.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” said Sears. “It really brings the community together and takes some of the mystery out of what the police do. It makes you realize that they are people, too.”
“Whether you are a part of the community or are interested in becoming involved in law enforcement as a career or volunteer, it is a fantastic way to get involved,” Sears continued.
Week five featured Commander Pat Slack of the Snohomish County Regional Drug and Gang Task Force, along with Deputy James Gibson of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office K9 Unit.
Snohomish County East Precinct Detective Danny Pitocco volunteers his time each week to facilitate the three-hour sessions, along with Lt. Beaton. Pitocco has over 40 years in law enforcement and is a certified police composite artist. An expressive and dynamic speaker, Pitocco introduced Gibson to academy attendees last Thursday night with enthusiasm for the Snohomish County’s K9 Unit.
“K9 is one very close to my heart,” said Pitocco. “I was a handler for five years, and out of all the partners I’ve ever worked with my dog was the best. I loved my dog.”
Gibson, who has been with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office for 25 years, has been a K9 handler since 1997 and is currently working with his fourth K9 partner; a German Shepherd named Jack. Gibson is a master canine trainer with the Washington State Police Canine Association, and trains dogs for patrol as well as narcotics detection.
Narcotics dogs, who are trained a total of 200 hours, are trained to locate illegal drugs only such as methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine and ecstasy. They are trained using a special scent box specifically designed for dog training, and are taught to perform a specific action upon the discovery of a particular scent. The action depends on the trainer; Gibson prefers to teach his dogs to sit, but sometimes trainers use a “scratch” command.
“I don’t like the scratch (command) because I don’t want to scratch up people’s cars,” said Gibson.
What makes dogs especially appealing for police work is their keen sense of smell.
“Dogs can smell 100,000 times better than we can,” said Gibson.
He further explained that, while a human being might smell an object like a pizza, a dog smells not just the pizza but each of the individual ingredients that make up the pizza.
Patrol dogs receive a total of 400 hours of training, and are utilized in the criminal apprehension of suspects involved in serious infractions. Snohomish County has a total of four dogs in service, all of which are male German Shepherds, a breed chosen specifically for an exceptional scent-tracking ability.
Gibson’s current dog, Jack, is cross-trained for both narcotics and patrol. Gibson explained that he prefers to train them for the patrol side first, and after they work patrol for about a year he trains them for narcotics detection.
Gibson stated that Snohomish County patrol dogs, like Jack, are referred to as “direct contact dogs.”
“What that means is that, when they find the bad guy, they’ll make direct contact,” said Gibson.
Gibson is on call 24-hours a day, always poised to take Jack out to either locate drugs or persons suspected as having been involved in a serious crime.
Before bringing Jack in to meet academy attendees and perform a demonstration, Gibson talked a little about his previous K9 partners.
Gibson worked with his first dog, Recon, for about a year before the dog was killed in the line of duty. The incident, which occurred in 1998, earned Recon the Medal of Valor for his bravery.
His next dog was named Striker.
“He had 447 felony arrests,” said Gibson. “He was an amazing dog.”
After Striker retired, Gibson got Justice, who was 16-months old when he came to the sheriff’s office from the Netherlands. Like his current dog, Jack, Justice was cross-trained by Gibson for both patrol and narcotics work. Gibson shared that Justice didn’t like the patrol work because it was extremely stressful for him; but the narcotics side he really enjoyed.
After Justice retired, he got Jack, who came to the sheriff’s office from Canada when he was about 14 months old. Jack will be four years old in August.
“He acts a little immature, but he’s actually got a really good head on his shoulders,” said Gibson.
Fourteen months is generally around the minimum age to begin training a K9 dog, but it all depends on the dog’s maturity level. How long a dog stays in service is also entirely dependent on the dog. K9 handlers view their dogs just as they would a human partner, and work hard to keep their dogs safe during pursuits.
“If someone harms a police dog, it is a felony crime,” said Gibson.
Gibson brought Jack in for a demonstration to show exactly what happens in the event that the dog encounters the scent of narcotics. No actual drugs were used in the demonstration, just the scent, which was obtained by placing an item like a cotton ball near narcotic substances and allowing it to absorb the odor.
After the narcotics demonstration, Detective Pitocco volunteered to don the “sleeve” which is a heavy-duty piece of equipment used by trainers while training their dogs in suspect apprehension.
Academy attendees very much enjoyed meeting Jack and hearing about what it’s like to be a K9 officer, as well as listening to Commander Slack’s presentation on drugs and gangs. Sultan resident Dr. Hans Dankers has been attending the academy, schedule permitting, since it started.
“This last session was particularly informative about drugs and gangs,” said Dankers. “The second half of the evening was a very interesting demonstration of K9 narcotics searches and K9 pursuit. We appreciated Detective Danny Pitocco volunteering his arm to demonstrate a K9 apprehension.”
Budgetary constraints at the department have limited the number of bulletproof vests that are available for the K9 units. Currently, three dogs do not have bulletproof vests, which are quite costly. Pennies for Puppies is a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization based out of Marysville, which was established to help raise money for these types of items. To find out how to help, please visit: http://penniesforpuppiesandponies.org/.
Upcoming sessions at the citizens’ academy will include a field trip to the SNOPAC 911 Dispatch Center, plus presentations on crime scene technology, detective procedures, major crimes and much more.