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NYPD K-9 team specializes in sniffing out hidden electronics

“You can’t beat the dog’s nose,” Officer Matthew Gullo said. “Any electronic device that has storage capability, they find because they all have the same chemical in common”


(L-R) NYPD Officers, Matthew Gullo, K9 Louie, Sgt Jamie Sitko, K9 Quaid, Andrew Nader, K9 Robbie and Jeffery Wickham and his K9 Hugh are pictured at the NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau training facilities in the Rockaway section of Queens early Tuesday Feb. 6, 2024. These four NYPD dogs are trained to find hidden electronics, cell phones, key fobs, memory cards, mini cell phones or anything with chip or bluetooth. (Luiz C. Ribeiro for NY Daily News)

Luiz C. Ribeiro/TNS

By Rocco Parascandola
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — Anyone who’s ever misplaced a cell phone would probably be jealous of having dogs like Louis, Qaid, Hugh or Robbie — NYPD Labradors trained to find electronic devices hidden by criminals in laundry bags or secret compartments, tossed during a chase or disguised as key chains.

“You can’t beat the dog’s nose,” Officer Matthew Gullo recently told the Daily News. “Any electronic device that has storage capability, they find because they all have the same chemical in common — and these dogs can detect that.”

The substance in question is actually two chemical compounds — Triphenylphosphine oxide, a flame retardant used to protect memory chips, and Hydroxycyclohexyl phenyl ketone, which is used as a coating against moisture.

Most electronics recovered during police investigations are found by responding officers or those executing search warrants.

But more and more, when investigators want to make sure they haven’t missed anything, the K9 unit for the NYPD’s Critical Response Command will be called in.

“We’re like an insurance policy,” Sgt. Jaime Sitko said. “Just to make sure nothing was missed.”

Sitko and K9 Quaid — at 2 years old, the youngest in the four-dog unit and, as one might expect, the one who barks most — were called into action a week ago when police busted a robbery ring whose members, using stolen mopeds and scooters, allegedly rode up on unsuspecting pedestrians and snatched their cell phones.

Police found 22 phones inside the Bronx apartment of the still-wanted ringleader, with Quaid tasked with looking for more devices.

The (human) cops hadn’t missed a thing, it turned out, but not finding a device is not a sign of failure, the K9 officers said.

In fact, conducting searches that turn up no evidence is all in a day’s work, as The News witnessed during a training session at a police facility in Breezy Point, Queens.

Devices, including a tiny cell phone the size of a human thumb and a favorite among prisoners, were hidden in various locations — in a row of empty cans, in bags of luggage, between couch cushions, under exercise mats and inside desk drawers.

Once the command is given, the dogs go to work, sometimes locating the devices within seconds, other times taking longer. K9 Hugh, at 7 the oldest of the four, likes to take his time but always delivers, according to his handler, Officer Jeffery Wickham.

Once a scent is detected, the dog will sit on his hind legs. A treat follows, then the hound is instructed to point out the device a second time. Another treat follows, as does a thorough rub behind the ears.

The training doesn’t vary, even when the officers are off-duty and home with their four-legged partners. Kids get involved, hiding their phones, as do grandmothers and others. And as when they’re on-duty, the dogs are fed piecemeal, one treat at a time, as opposed to a full bowl of food twice a day.

“My kid will have a baseball game and I’ll go to another field and hide something,” said Officer Andrew Nader , K9 Robbie’s handler. “So we’re always training.”

A recent thumb drive find — courtesy of Robbie — is now evidence in an ongoing child pornography case. Various other devices found by the four dogs have been used to strengthen numerous criminal cases.

So far, the dogs — each of which was previously in training to become seeing-eye dogs — have recovered more than 250 devices. That’s an average of about one a week in the nearly five years since the unit was formed in April 2019.

Louie, named after Det. Luis Lopez, killed in a 1994 buy-and-bust, and Hugh, named after Dylan Hugh Stewart, shot dead chasing a suspect in Brooklyn in 2005, were the first dogs in the unit. Robbie, named Officer Robert Helmke, who died in 2007 of 9/11 cancer and Quaid, one of the few NYPD dogs not named after a fallen officer, joined the team two years ago.

Electronics storage device detection dogs, as they are formally known, were pioneered by the Connecticut State Police , which graduated its first class in 2016.

The first dog trained in that expertise, K9 Selma, died of illness two years ago.


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