After eight years of dedicated service, a West Hawaii K-9 officer is retiring to a dog’s life.
Echo, a 10-year-old black labrador narcotics dog performed his last demonstration Thursday for a group of enthralled keiki at Kahakai Elementary School with his handler, Officer Justin Gaspar. Four boxes were placed on the ground with one containing drugs. After correctly identifying the correct box, the energetic canine jumped to retrieve his reward, a tennis ball, to the delight of the kids.
Echo is one of seven K-9s on the Big Island. Two of the dogs are trackers used for locating missing persons and the remaining five are narcotic sniffers assigned to vice.
Gaspar said the department is expected to receive a new recruit in the next few months. The dogs are raised by breeders in Europe that specialize in working class canines before being sent to U.S. mainland vendors. They receive initial training before being shipped to police department across the nation.
The dogs receive continuous training with their handlers, who also undergo training. New handlers and their dogs are required to go through a rigorous 260 hours of training before being put into service.
Echo has had an impressive career in the department. With his help the department has seized 26 pounds of methamphetamine, three pounds of cocaine, one-half pound of heroin, one pound of marijuana and $5,000 cash. Gaspar said his biggest single bust as a handler of Echo was 7 pounds of meth and 2 pounds of cocaine.
In addition to working with vice, the dogs are called in when a patrol officer performs a traffic stop, suspects narcotics in the vehicle and the occupants refuse a search. If the dog indicates drugs are present, the occupants are arrested, the vehicle towed and a search warrant is obtained to search the auto. They are also used for narcotics detection in various settings, including storage units and residences. K-9s around the country are also used to detect explosives, electronics, fire accelerants and even memory cards.
Vice unit Lt. Ed Buyten said airports are the main port of entry for narcotics on the Big Island, and the vice unit will be taking a proactive approach on establishing a daily K-9 presence there.
Buyten was a K-9 handler for seven years and is passionate about the success of the program.
“Without the use of the canines, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are,” he said.
Currently, handlers are rotated out of the division every five years, a policy Gaspar hopes to see changed.
“I would like to do this for the rest of my career,” he said.
The dogs live with their handlers, solidifying their bond. Because Gaspar will be receiving a new partner shortly, Echo will live out his retirement with his previous handler.
“It takes a special personality and character to control and work with a dog,” said Buyten. “Not everyone can do that, but it’s the most dynamic teammate you will ever have.”