“I am alive today because he is not,” said Grand Junction Police Department (GJPD) Officer Geraldine Earthman.
Gero, her former four-legged partner, died in the line of duty in 2004 while the pair assisted in arresting a suspect with felony warrants. As police surrounded the apartment, the suspect leaned out of a window, taking aim at the unsuspecting officers with a handgun. Gero’s barks alerted them to the danger. The suspect opened fire and Gero moved to protect.
The bullets meant for Earthman hit him.
Earthman was able to return fire, wounding the suspect, who was taken into custody.
Gero’s heart stopped. Earthman’s was broken.
The Colorado Police Canine Association honored Gero’s heroism by creating the Gero Award. Since 2004, it is conferred annually to the law enforcement dog that goes above and beyond the line of duty.
The best job in the world
Earthman knew the risks to her own safety when she moved from dispatch to patrol in 1990. She knew she wanted a K-9 partner, and she knew it would be a 24/7 commitment until one of them died.
“It’s not like SWAT,” explained Earthman, 54. “It’s not over when the rifles get locked up in the safe or the motorcycle is parked in the garage. You never have a day off. But it’s the best job in the world, hands down.”
Each K-9 officer and handler must go through a rigorous, 520-hour basic training. Police dogs certified in tracking must be able to follow a scent over a variety of terrains, in the dark and independent of their handlers. In extreme weather, their abilities can mean the difference between life and death for a missing child or a medically or cognitively compromised adult.
GJPD Officer Trevor Hawkins works with a dog named Nero, whose specialty is tracking. This involves following a scent trail left on the surface of the ground, in adjacent brush or even lingering in the air. It’s a tough job in the Grand Valley, where dry conditions and scorching heat can destroy scent quickly, and wind can divert the dog’s path.
“The longer you wait, the less scent there’ll be, especially in hot weather,” Hawkins said. “We’d prefer to respond and find the person has already returned home than to try to track with limited scent.”
“You gotta trust your dog”
Building searches—especially large ones in warehouses, schools or churches—can be conducted much more quickly with a dog than by humans alone. K-9 officers can sniff a locked door and move on if nothing suspicious is present, whereas human officers have to take the time to break down the door to verify the room is clear.
Nero is good at his job—really good. With obvious pride, Hawkins described a manhunt involving an armed suspect.
“Nero kept indicating something was in or near this canal,” he said.
Expecting it to be a false alert, Hawkins investigated. Nero was right on the mark. The suspect, who had thankfully left his gun in the car, was submerged in the inky waters. The police nabbed him when he came up for air.
“You gotta trust your dog,” said Hawkins.
In addition to tracking, Nero locates drug odors. He can identify four categories of illegal substances and is considered successful even if no actual drugs are found but the suspect admits to having used or kept them prior to the search.
During one search, Nero insisted something was present in a glove box. Officers searched to no avail. But when Hawkins examined the dashboard more closely, he discovered a secret compartment, and the driver’s drug stash, just where Nero had suspected it.
A new partner
Earthman began working with law enforcement dogs in 1992, volunteering as a decoy for the Fruita Police Department’s patrol K-9, Omni. Decoys hide so dogs can practice tracking, or wear bite suits that minimize bodily harm when a K-9 officer practices taking them down.
To be patrol certified, dogs must master all basic obedience commands, such as heel and sit, responding instantly. They must be able to detain or engage a suspect and return to the handler when called without hesitation. They must prove they can conduct building and area searches in a limited amount of time, accurately, even under difficult conditions.
When Fruita decided to sell Omni in order to acquire a dog for drug detection, Earthman jumped at the chance to buy him. She completed the required 520 training hours on her own while working full time.
“I presented my paperwork to the boss and told him all we needed was a car,” she said.
Once on the force, law enforcement dogs work for peanuts—or kibble, in this case. And unlike a human partner, they never complain about what radio station they listen to or where they stop. The mere presence of a K-9 officer can halt a hostile encounter. During one incident, a belligerent suspect ignored Hawkins’ verbal commands and rushed the patrol car. Nero exiting the back seat was enough to cause the perpetrator to hit the ground.
“They depend on you”
K-9 officers regularly put their lives on the line.
In 2010, Earthman and another dog, Oldo, tracked an armed suspect who had already fired one round then disappeared into the darkness. Oldo hunted and engaged the suspect, who inflicted career-ending injuries on the mission-minded dog.
The suspect dumped the wounded Oldo into a canal and left him to drown. Officers were able to arrest the suspect and rescue the dog, rushing him to a veterinarian. Although his life was saved and he received the 2010 Gero Award, Oldo had to retire in a matter of months, disabled and in chronic pain.
Dogs work six or seven years before retiring, unless injury or death intervenes. At that point, the expenses for food, medical care and other needs becomes the financial responsibility of its human partner. Earthman takes that in stride.
The difficult part is dealing with grief, she said. Handlers form powerful emotional attachments to aging animals that may eventually need to be put down.
“That’s the hardest thing about having a dog. You might not want to let go, but you have to choose what’s best for them,” Earthman said. “They depend on you to make the right decisions for them.”
Officer Earthman’s current K-9 partner, Joker, will compete to retain his title as the hardest-hitting and -biting K-9 officer on the Western Slope at the Police K-9 Demonstration and Competition,
held at Fruita’s Salt Wash Park at 10 a.m. on September 9. The event will feature a number of K-9 teams and is open to the public. Proceeds from fundraisers at the challenge will defray costs for retirement expenses for our four-legged protectors.
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