3 lessons from a K-9 attic standoff deployment

The following debrief from Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s use of a K-9 during a standoff with a suspect hiding in an attic is one of several nominees for NTOA’s K-9 SWAT Deployment Award

We would like to thank Lieutenant Jeff Hewes, Las Vegas Metro K-9 Section Commander and K-9 Officer Jeff Corbett for sharing this deployment. Author Brad Smith and I hope that in this article we provide you some ideas on how to utilize your patrol dogs in a SWAT operation. Add your own thoughts in the comments area below.

In 2015, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was one of numerous K-9 SWAT deployments nominated from law enforcement agencies across the county for the NTOA’s new K-9 SWAT Deployment Award, presented “to the K-9 handler who successfully utilizes a police dog during a SWAT operation and whose actions demonstrate extraordinary courage and dedication to the protection of the fellow officers and the public.” 

The incident for which LVMPD was recognized is a great one that yields a number of lessons about K-9 deployment in a close-quarters environment such as an attic.

The Incident
On April 14, 2015, sexual assault detectives from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department were investigating — and attempting to arrest — a suspect wanted for 80 counts of sexual assault. Detectives located the suspect inside his single family residence, but the suspect would not surrender. In addition to these crimes, the suspect had multiple priors for possession of dangerous weapons.  

After several hours, it became apparent the suspect was not going to comply with the detectives’ commands and peacefully surrender. Las Vegas Metro PD SWAT, Crisis Negotiation Team and two patrol K-9s were requested. On every SWAT activation, Las Vegas Metro SWAT has two patrol K-9 units respond with them –  one for rear containment and the other for front containment/arrest team, then utilized as part of the entry team. 

Hiding in the Attic
K-9 Officer Jeff Corbett and K-9 Hunter were one of K-9 units that responded to assist the SWAT team. Officer Corbett has been an officer for 17 years and has been in K-9s for nine years. Because all 21 patrol K-9s deploy with SWAT, every K-9 handler goes through an 80-hour basic SWAT school.

Containment was set up around the suspect’s house while the Crisis Negotiation Team attempted to make contact with the suspect. During five hours of failed attempts to contact the suspect, a tactical plan was formulated to slowly clear the residence, using a robot first, followed by a patrol K-9 team integrated into the SWAT team. 

After the robot was unable to locate the hidden suspect, SWAT made entry into the location. Hunter was used to clear areas of the residence systematically before the SWAT team entered those areas. 

Once the living area was cleared, it was time to clear the attic. Before Hunter or a SWAT operator looked in the attic, a pole camera with thermal imaging was put into the attic crawl space but the suspect was not seen or located. The pole camera did give the search team a good idea of what was inside the attic as well as if the attic could support a dog in the attic.

After multiple K-9 announcements were given, Officer Corbett placed Hunter on his shoulder and climbed a ladder – while making sure he did not break the plane of the attic opening with his head. 

Unbeknownst to anyone on the search team, the suspect was hiding only four to five feet away from the attic opening behind a furnace. The suspect was in a perfect spot to ambush anyone who entered the attic — he had a significant tactical advantage over the search team. Luckily for the search team, the suspect buried himself under thick insulation behind the furnace and was not watching the attic opening. 

Hunter used his olfactory system and quickly found the suspect. Once Hunter bit the suspect he immediately called out that the dog had him and he wanted to surrender. 

While Hunter was biting the suspect on the leg, SWAT operators and Officer Corbett entered the attic. Because the suspect was of small stature and hiding behind the furnace, there was no room for the arrest team to get behind the furnace and take control of the suspect. 

From a distance, Officer Corbett verbally outed Hunter off his bite which he did immediately. Hunter was then recalled past two other SWAT operators that were in the attic so they could take control of the suspect. The suspect was taken into custody without further incident. Due to his training, Hunter paid no attention to the SWAT operators as he went by them.

1. Conduct attic training
We have all heard the saying, “Train as you deploy.” Because of prior attic training and real life deployments, Hunter had no problem being placed on Officer Corbett’s shoulder and searching the attic. But unless you have trained your dog in attic searches and the dog is very proficient in attic search, both entering and exiting the attic, don’t make your first attic search a real world deployment. You are asking for catastrophic disaster. 

Whether you deploy your dog into an attic by placing him on the handler’s shoulder, by using a shield or having your dog climb a ladder, the dog needs to be comfortable in this type of environment. I’ve seen seasoned street dogs that were placed into an attic for the first time in training and refused to bite the decoy because the method of getting the dog into the attic shut him down. Even when the dog saw the decoy the dog refused to bite the decoy because the dog had never been exposed to the small, tight and confined space inside an attic.

2. Use but don’t over-rely on technology
I completely agree with using any type of tool — like a robot or a pole camera — before a dog or an operator has to search that same area. But as great as modern technology is it’s hard to defeat the nose of a well-trained police dog. 

I’ve heard scientists and trainers say the dog’s nose is between one to two million times better than a human’s nose. Until someone can make a machine that can do the work of a dog, I’m sticking with dogs before I sent my patrol team or SWAT team into harm’s way. 

3. Have a verbal out
I cannot overemphasize the importance of having a verbal out from a distance with your dog. Many handlers — myself included — like to have physical, hands-on control of your dog by using the collar or harness before having the dog release his bite in a real world incident to ensure there will not be a secondary bite. 

But in times like this where the small confined area did not allow the handler to get close enough to the suspect to get hands-on the dog, you must have a verbal out and recall to the handler.  

K-9 Hunter’s actions ensured that the SWAT team would not have to expose themselves by entering the attic to search for the suspect. Had it not been for the deployment of Hunter, the SWAT operators and/or the suspect could have been seriously hurt or the suspect may not have been found.

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