Oct. 05, 2008
The missile has been launched. It is angry, dog-shaped and increasing in size in my field of vision.
Thousands of enviable jobs are performed in Las Vegas. Human chew toy is not among them.
"It's always scary," Metropolitan Police K-9 officer Eric Kerns told me earlier, as he stuffed me into a foam suit outside Hyde Park Middle School. "You never get used to it."
Every morning, Kerns and his 21 co-workers take turns "dressing out" as the decoy during daily training for one or more of their 42 dogs.
I hope they do not expect their suit back dry.
"ROOUFFF!" the missile barks.
To be honest, part of me is secretly rooting for Bruce the Belgian Malinois. Considering today's economy, disability benefits are permanent, whereas unemployment runs out after six months.
Kerns estimates that 350 police apprehensions per year are made on four legs.
"The vast majority of criminals we chase would not be found if (dogs) weren't used," he said. "They're ingenious at the places they hide."
At 7:45 just this morning, three burglars broke into a house in southwest Las Vegas.
"One guy took off running and they caught him," Kerns said. "Then they went in with a dog, cleared the house and found two guys up in the attic.
"You and I would have had to poke the insulation and hoped it made a noise."
Kerns, a 47-year-old Arizona native, entered the academy after managing an armored car company and working on a chicken farm.
"I didn't have a real set plan," he said.
At a job fair in Los Angeles, Kerns talked to recruiters from the Metropolitan Police Department.
"It sounded very appealing to me," he said.
Kerns spent four years as a patrol officer before testing for K-9, which grants most officers two furry partners. (One hunts either narcotics or explosives, the other humans.)
"You get to do all the fun, exciting things that you became a police officer to do," Kerns said of the gig, which pays $45,000 a year to start.
"Plus, you don't have to argue with your partner about where you're gonna eat."
After 10-hour shifts, the dogs go home with their partners as pets.
"ROOUFFF! ROOUFFF! ROOOUUUFFFF!"
Bruce is telling me not even to think about moving right now -- echoing the message sent by my nervous system. If I freeze in place, as Kerns had me do in previous exercises, Bruce will simply continue barking at my feet.
However, Kerns instructed me to turn this time, to the left, 45 degrees away from Bruce.
"If you turn, he's gonna think you're trying to get away and he'll attack," Kerns explained.
Earlier, Kerns rolled up his left sleeve to reveal one of the main drawbacks to K-9 work: a surface not unlike a Phoenix Mars Lander image.
"See this one?" he asked.
Most of the scars were bites. But the one he pointed to was just from being pinched through the suit. While foam protects canine teeth from making contact, it doesn't necessarily prevent skin-breaking pressure.
"Should we bring Duane out here?" officer Sam Carrillo asked Kerns, whose eyes widened at the suggestion.
Duane is one of the unit's dog handlers. When I inquired what happened to him, Kerns and Carrillo only looked at each other and laughed.
"Hands up!" Kerns yells.
It's usually not good hearing these words from a police officer, and now is no exception. I'm holding my hands too low.
Ideally, Bruce is supposed to favor a forearm or bicep. If he bites a hand because it's easiest to reach, he will have excessive leverage that could knock me off balance.
"Falling is how people get hurt doing this," Kerns warned earlier, explaining that a fall would expose a number of reporter-flavored areas: the unprotected hand drawn into my left sleeve, either foot, or my neck.
"He's trained to bite you wherever he can," Kerns said.
But, as my wife frequently points out, listening isn't one of my top skills.
"You're not gonna fall, don't worry," Kerns said.
He added: "Please don't fall."
The bite I dreaded lands just above my low-hanging right hand, which is wrapped around a hard plastic protector. It doesn't hurt. However, I can think of many places I'd rather be right now.
Just as Kerns warned, his 80-pound partner begins whipping me around like a firecracker-stuffed rag doll.
"Stop fighting my dog!" Kerns yells, which is part of the script.
I've opted to go off script, however, and not fight Bruce at all. This means that Kerns is free, at any time he wants, to yell the German command calling his dog off. (Alternate languages are used so that yelling "Stop!" to a perp won't stop a dog instead -- despite the potential this creates for German criminals to attack, heel and sit.)
Rather than ending the drill, Kerns lets it continue. Three of his fellow officers laugh as I struggle not to lose my balance. (An e-mail from Lt. Keith Carter, the former K-9 chief who originally approved my request, may shed some light: "Can ya bring some other reporters with ya?" it asked. "I have a list!")
After 30 seconds that feel like minutes, Kerns yells the command for down ("Platz!") and Bruce drops to his feet, ostensibly guarding me until Kerns arrives with handcuffs.
We repeat this exercise three more times -- four if you count the time Bruce launches without Kerns launching him.
"You're not his favorite person right now," he explains.
We cover handler protection, in which Bruce responds to an elbow punch I take at Kerns (and thoroughly enjoy). I even get up the nerve to run; well, more accurately, to waddle like Cartman from "South Park." Without fail, each mock-mauling achieves more suckiness than its predecessor.
By the time I remove my gear, my adrenals are empty and I'm leaking several fluids, blood among them. It covers my right thumb.
"That's all I need is for risk assessment to see this," says Sgt. Jim Seebok, who enjoyed the spectacle until now.
Whenever suspects are apprehended doggie-style, they're checked by paramedics before being brought to the hospital or jail.
"Some are so high, they feel no pain," Kerns says. "I've had guys that got bit and drug all the way out of an attic and never made a peep."
I take a pass on the ambulance call. It's only a spot of blood. Kerns even asks if my "boo-boo" hurts. Most likely, it came from my nail digging into my hand protector while I cowered. But who can say for sure?
If you don't see me anymore, I'm on disability for Parvo.
Fear and Loafing runs on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.