Officer Niko was given a Miami Police Officer's service badge by Miami Mayor Rudy Schultz at Tuesday evening's Miami City Council meeting to mark the dog's entry into the department.

MIAMI – Miami Police Department's very first K9 Unit, K9 Officer Niko, and K9 handler Officer Jacob Hamblett, are now ready for work in Miami.

Officer Niko was given a Miami Police Officer's service badge by Miami Mayor Rudy Schultz at Tuesday evening's Miami City Council meeting to mark the dog's entry into the department.

Schultz pinned the badge onto Niko’s service vest and said, “Niko, it’s my pleasure to pin this on you, buddy,” and patted the new K9 Officer on the head, which was greeted with a wagging tail.

“We’re looking forward to putting him to work,” Miami Chief of Police Thomas Anderson said. “He’s a great dog.”

City Manager Dean Kruithof presented the newest City of Miami employee with a box of dog treats.

“This is a very good dog,” Kruithof said.

“It's a huge tool for law enforcement and the community,” Hamblett said. “It's a safety tool. We can use him to detect things that we wouldn't be able to, and then he's also a very useful tool in narcotics. That's a huge problem that we have in our community right now.”

Using funds from a July 2016 anonymous donation of $15,000 and matching funds from a Peoria Tribe donation the department was able to train and add the K9 Unit. Niko is a 15 month-old German Shepherd. He was born August 10, 2016, in Belarus and then came to Indiana before coming to Miami.

“We try to serve the community the best we can, and one of the biggest problems that we find throughout the community and our interactions is a drug problem, so we wanted to get a tool that is best going to help us deal with that,” Anderson said. “We felt the dog would be the best way to address that and combat that problem.”

Niko is trained and state certified and will be used for the detection of narcotics, marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. Niko is now on active duty and is in service.

The dog’s name was chosen through a naming contest on Facebook.

“The contest had a huge, huge response. 180,000 people saw that post,” Hamblett said. “Everybody loves dogs.”

K9 Training

Hamblett said part of the seven-week K9 training for the dog was to hide the narcotics with a ball in the same container and when Niko finds it, and alerts to the illegal drug, he is rewarded with his toy.

“Whenever he smells it he will have a change in behavior. Basically what he's looking for is he's looking for his ball, and he associates that smell with finding his reward,” Hamblett said.

Niko was chosen from a K9 vendor for his character, demeanor, and ability by retired Joplin Police Department K9 Handler Officer Travis Walthall of Patriot K9 in Joplin, and received some early training and assessment there.

“He wanted to make sure Niko had the right temperament for us. If a kid does run up to him and tries to pet him, we try to keep that from happening, but if it does, he's able to handle this,” Hamblett said.

Partners

The day Hamblett and Niko met was special.

“I was supposed to be there for 20 or 30 minutes, and I ended up staying for about four hours,” Hamblett said. “I was real uncomfortable at first and wasn't sure what to expect – do I pet him or what do I do? He just ran up to me, and it was great from there.”

The training was frustrating at times, according to Hamblett.

“It's a dog, and though these dogs are highly trained, it takes time and hard work,” he said. “He had obedience training first and learned to sit and stay and stuff like that. For the most part, we learned everything together."

Niko and Hamblett will now attend 16-hour monthly training sessions with Patriot K9 to keep the K9 Unit as well-trained and ready as possible. Niko is trained and commanded in a foreign language, which helps ensure he is focused on his handler.

“I’ve had access to some pretty good K9 teams and some pretty good animals. If you look at him compared to a dog that’s been on the streets four or five years, you’ll notice leaps and bounds differences,” Hamblett said. “They learn more and more as they’re tested.”

K9’s most generally remain with their handler after retirement.

“We hope to get eight or nine years service life form Niko,” Anderson said.

K9 Crime Fighting

Dogs are used for illegal narcotics searches as well as tracking due to their extraordinary sense of smell.

“He can smell residual odor, and there doesn't have to be substance there. It could be something that was there multiple days ago,” Hamblett said. “That's why you typically go around an area or vehicle multiple times to give him different angles to catch the scent.”

The most common false alert occurs when the suspect has had an illegal narcotic in possession before, but no longer has the drug, according to Anderson.

Niko will be used whenever law enforcement has reasonable suspicion to believe a crime has been committed, or there are enough criminal indicators, and a search is warranted.

A search warrant is not legally required in such instances, Anderson said, “Not to run the dog around a vehicle, that's a non-invasive search.”

“On the street, if they're out with somebody and have reason to believe he has drugs they can call me, I can respond to their location and run my dog,” Hamblett said.

If consent is not given, or probable cause is not found, a search warrant is needed to enter and search a residence with the K9 Unit.

“We can use Niko for tracking, so if somebody runs into the woods, or for missing children, if we know kind of a general area where they were last at, we can track from that location. If he picks that up he will track where they've been,” Hamblett said. “Niko can be used for building searches, if you have somebody hiding in a building, we can send him in.”

K9s may even help de-escalate situations.

“They are definitely a force multiplier. When people know he’s around they are more likely to settle down, you might be able to outrun a person, but you’re not going to be able to outrun a dog,” Hamblett said.

Officer Niko is the first ever K9 officer in the Miami Police Department.

BIA and Quapaw Marshals have K9 units, and the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office will soon add a K9 to their ranks.

“We had a reserve officer, Hal McGuire, who trained and ran Bloodhounds. He and former Officer Dan Dorey ran those for a little bit,” Anderson said. “We've never had an actual dog through the Police Department. Those were his dogs, and he was a reserve officer, and he allowed us to use those, but we've never had a K9 Unit in Miami.”

Care and Commitment

Hamblett had to agree to a contract to care for the animal night and day, a big commitment from the officer.

“The dog lives with me at my house. It's full time – it's like having an infant,” Hamblett said. “I have to go out there on a regular basis and let him out of his kennel to go to the bathroom and stuff like that. We have certain protocols to follow for Niko's care and to be sure he doesn't get out and get away and safety procedures.”

Hamblett said Niko gets along great with his other dog and his children.

Officer Niko is afforded the same protection and rights under state law as a human law enforcement officer. Harming a K9 officer in any way carries stiff felony penalties.

“If you hit him or something like that, it's no different than hitting an officer,” Hamblett warned. “The City's taken it one step forward. He's been given his own employee number and badge.”

Anderson said plans are to use the K9 Unit as a positive community outreach for the department as well by taking the dog to schools and community events. He said Niko was chosen for his sociability as well as his other abilities.

“We plan to do a lot of public relations with him. Last night we went to a DHS Christmas party for the kids in state custody, and he had a good time with it. Niko loved it,” Hamblett said. “We're going to try to do that and bring some awareness to what we're doing.”

Hamblett said proper etiquette with a K9 is always to make sure the K9 handler sees you approach and ask for permission to pet the dog before touching Niko.

“You definitely don't want people running up to him because he is trained in handler protection. So if he thinks that I'm threatened, he'll react,” Hamblett said. “Ask, stand back and make sure he sees you, make sure I see you, and we'll go from there. It will kind of depend on what he's doing because his temperament will change depending on where we're at. There are certain cues he picks up on that puts him into go mode.”

“We went through all steps to make sure Niko is as well trained, and so far the community's been nothing but supportive,” Hamblett said.

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.