LAUREL — Laurel police officers welcomed their newest member to the force last week, a 22-month-old Belgian Malinois K9 officer named Colt who is trained to sniff out methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and help find missing people.
Colt's handler is Laurel Police Officer Jackson Booth, who will have been with the department for three years in October.
Booth was the driving force behind bringing a K9 unit back to the Laurel police. He said the last time the department had a K9 officer was in 1997.
“When I graduated from the police academy, I really wanted to find something that I liked to do. I love doing DUI enforcement and interdiction, looking for drugs and getting DUIs off the streets. So at that point in time I wanted something to benefit my department and my community. That’s why I started looking to a K9 program," Booth said.
Laurel Police Chief Stan Langve said the department's last police dog came with a then-new hire of an officer from Red Lodge. The officer has since been promoted to the rank of captain in the Laurel Police Department. Langve said the department didn't continue the K9 unit after the previous dog passed away.
Langve said there's a need for Colt's drug-detection abilities in the community. Langve has been the police chief in Laurel for two and a half years, serving 21 years total for the department. He said Laurel's crime is similar to Billings, in that calls for theft, violence and stolen vehicles are often precipitated because of drugs.
"We’re along a major corridor (Interstate 90) for those drugs being moved around. With that dog, it gives us the opportunity to establish that probable cause to get a warrant and pursue these drug cases. Whereas before, you might have a suspicion, but you have no probable cause to detain them and continue the investigation further. Now with this tool, we’re able to establish that probable cause and get the drugs off the streets," Langve said.
Purchasing Colt, his training, Booth's training, and a used police car was an expensive venture, Langve said, but all of the K9 unit so far has been paid for with donations from Laurel and surrounding area community members and businesses. The total cost came out to $50,628. The idea was sparked by Booth and came to fruition within a year's time when Langve expected it to take two years, he said.
“It’s very humbling and gracious of the community, not just Laurel, but the surrounding community, of the support everybody’s offered. We’ve had businesses donate services, money, sponsor fundraisers. It’s a partnership that we would like to continue," Langve said.
Colt is expected to work for the Laurel Police Department for eight to nine years.
The only piece of the K9 unit the department has paid for so far is some travel expenses for training, Langve said.
In crafting the Laurel police K9 unit, Booth said he looked to other nearby law enforcement agencies to learn about their police dogs. Booth said he worked with the Billings Police Department, Montana Highway Patrol, and Musselshell, Stillwater and Yellowstone county sheriff's offices.
"Asking them about their K9 programs and trying to get ideas of how they did it, what would they change? What would they add? What would they take away and just kind of get ideas on how to make my department the very best and one that people want to come be a part of," Booth said.
If donations to the Laurel police K9 unit come in less frequently over time, the department will pick up the cost, but it's a cost Langve said will be worth it for the department and community. All of the initial donated money has been spent, but the plan is to have Colt on the force for a long time, Langve said.
"Now we’re going to continue the fundraising part of it to continue to support the program because it’s not an event, it’s a process and you have to keep that up with training and healthcare and such. It’s phenomenal. It’s humbling all in the same to see how the community came together and how fast they did," Langve said.
Colt had an international journey to get to Montana. He started his life in Europe in the Netherlands, Booth said. All of Colt's commands are spoken in Dutch.
"For him to let go of his toy or anything in general, it's going to be 'los'. For him to sit is going to be 'sita.' When we're training, for him to find, 'giftie' is his command to look for narcotics or look for his giftie. We also have 'zook' and that's going to be a tracking command and the list goes on and on," Booth said.
Colt was then hand-picked by the owner of Sharpsville, Pennsylvania-based Shallow Creek Kennels, a work dog importer and trainer who has trained dogs for police departments in 21 states, including Montana with the Billings Police Department. Colt spent six weeks being trained to be a police dog in Pennsylvania, Booth said.
Last week, Booth got back from an additional four weeks of training in Pennsylvania with Colt.
“Colt had to learn how to work with me and I had to learn how to work with Colt. This is my first time ever doing this and Colt has been around people that know how to (train) for their whole entire lives. (Colt) knows what’s going on, so it’s just kind of teaching me how to work with him," Booth said.
Their training was rigorous and had long hours, Booth said. The training covered everything from K9 first aid and medical knowledge to the tone of voice to speak with to keep the dog's attention.
It takes a special type of dog to work for a police department and a special type of officer to take on the large commitment.
“Some people think that any dog can be a good police dog, but some dogs don’t like the sound of the railroad tracks, or fireworks going off. Some dogs might bark when the doorbell rings and stuff like that. Working dogs, they can’t have those little quirks," Booth said.
Taking care of Colt is a full-time commitment for Booth. Colt isn't a piece of equipment that an officer can leave in their locker at the end of a shift. Colt goes home with Booth every night, until it's time to go back to work.
“I feed him. I walk him. I water him. A lot of long hours from early mornings before shift to late hours after shift. We have to do training every day. Just from small, little obedience things to narcotics, to tracking training every single day. At that point in time, he’s a tool. He’s a great tool, but he’s also a partner and a companion that’s going to be with me for a long time. I can’t wait to build that bond with him and do a lot of great things with him," Booth said.
Booth and Colt are on call 24/7, 365 days per year. They could get a call at any time to help search for drugs or find a missing person for other Laurel officers. They could also be called to help out in surrounding counties, Booth said.
"Having me and Colt, we’re a tool that’s there 24/7 that can be called anytime to come help and be an asset to someone’s family that might be in need," Booth said.
Booth said he grew up with English bulldogs, a breed with a completely different personality than Colt.
"My dogs at home were pretty lazy and liked to sleep and hang out and cuddle on the couch. Now with Colt, he’s the complete opposite of that. He likes to go, go, go all the time and likes playing fetch, likes playing ball, likes going around cars and meeting people. He loves doing his thing. Meeting new people and working, that’s what he loves to do," Booth said.
Specific information for a community meet-and-greet day for people to say hello to Colt will be announced later this week, Langve said. The event will likely take place in Riverside Park in Laurel on the first or second weekend of May, Langve said. Keep an eye on the Laurel city web site or the police department's Facebook page for the announcement.
"Having this K9, people know that, oh okay, Laurel has a K9 and that starts cutting down on petty crime such as thefts, burglaries, assaults. Just having this tool in the community just really helps the community as a whole. Not just with the drug problem, but with everything else,” Booth said.