More and more communities are adding K9 officers to their police force, with each sporting a price tag of about $14,000.
The K9s vary in size, color and skill sets, with a variety of breeds now being recruited to help fight crime. Among specific skill sets learned by the dogs include seeking out drugs, detecting explosives, doing search and rescue and helping find bodies.
The School City of Hobart is currently the only school district in Northwest Indiana to have a full-time K9 school resource officer. A full-breed German shepherd, Hobart police Officer Scout, is trained for drug detection but has proven to be quite a public relations pooch, bridging the gap between students and police.
"When I think back early in my career when police would bring dogs into schools to do searches, there was always a feeling of fear and intimidation. Dogs would sniff lockers if they found something, they would start scratching and barking aggressively," Hobart's Superintendent Peggy Buffington said. "It's not like that now. Scout responds much differently. If he sniffs out something, he is quiet and gentle while alerting his handler."
Breaking new ground can be risky, but the Hobart School System has had tail-wagging success since making the decision in 2013 to embed Scout as a full-time K9 officer in its schools. The tale behind the tail begins even before 4-year-old Scout was born; when Buffington attended a 2008 National School Board Conference in Florida.
"Current Hobart School Board President Karen Robbins and I attended a session on K9s in schools during the conference and what we saw was pretty spectacular," Buffington said. "We learned how K9s could help kids feel comfortable around police officers, be more respectful and how the dogs can connect the community, the police and the schools."
Buffington filed away that experience. A second eye-opener was seeing the kind of positive impact a Wheaton terrier named Lucky had on Hobart's elementary students through a local education program called "Lucky Lessons," by Nancy Starewicz. She is an award-winning school psychologist and book author who would bring her therapy dog into regional schools.
"(Hobart Police) Chief Rick Zormier and I meet often because we are both very committed to school safety and we have a great partnership," Buffington said. "At one particular meeting, I told the chief about the response we saw from kids with Lucky and about what we saw at that (Florida) conference. I asked if he would consider having a K9 SRO," Buffington said.
"I thought it was a great idea," Zormier said. "Obviously it would require the right handler and dog team to be successful, but I told Dr. Buffington I knew just the right guy."
"It was like an epiphany," Buffington said.
Zormier explained it not only takes a special skill set to work with K9s, but also to be an SRO officer. "An SRO officer must have the ability to relate to kids, but also to command their respect and maintain a presence of authority. It's a balancing act that takes a special person."
Buffington and Zormier were unanimous in believing that special person was Cpl. A. Simon Gresser, a 16-year police veteran who is Hobart's K9 team leader and APCA Master Trainer. Gresser already had been working with young Scout, doing demonstrations at community events and visiting local schools. Because Scout was proving to be a "goodwill ambassador" for K9 officers everywhere, Gresser knew Scout had "the right stuff" to be a full-time K9 SRO.
Scout is a rock star at Hobart. Kids pass in the halls between classes and call out salutations to Scout or stop to give him a quick scratch on the ears as he sits attentively next to Gresser.
"The students all know Scout is an officer with very special skills and a very specific job, but they love having him there," Buffington said.
"Knowing Scout is in the building every day, makes a kid stop and think twice about what they bring to school, so his being here is a deterrent," Gresser added.
"There are a lot of good dogs with the right characteristics to work on the street, but for this kind of application and this kind of environment, it takes a special dog with just the right attitude, personality and temperament," he said. "For this job, I wanted a dog with very sound nerves who could handle being in a large group of people, who was comfortable with people coming up to him and being in noisy situations, and who was comfortable being around other dogs."
Gresser said he and Scout are very much alike.
"He and I are both very outgoing and social," he said. "I can talk to a tree if you point me to it. Scout is the same way. He does anything I need him to do and he communicates very well. Scout gives me nice cues if he is not comfortable in a certain situation. A lot of dogs don't give you a warning signal when they've had enough or something bothers them. Those dogs can sometimes lash out, but there are never any surprises with Scout. He knows how to 'talk' to me."
Not long after, the padded paws of Officer Scout began patrolling Hobart's hallways at Gresser's side Buffington felt it immediately created a different environment.
"We introduced them to the community and to parents at the school's annual 'Springfest'," she said. "We had them by the table where people buy tickets. The line for tickets was a lot shorter than the line of people wanting to meet Simon and Scout."
Nearly two years on the job, Gresser and Scout have proven to be the perfect team and their success in both connecting with students and keeping trouble at bay has started making other school systems take notice.
Buffington stresses that Gresser's job is not easy.
"Some people think being an SRO is a 'cushy' position, but it is not just a 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift," she said. "Simon and Scout put in long hours and there are times when I have had to call them to go out in the late evening for things like a wellness check. It's their job to keep our students safe and that job doesn't end when the bell rings."
The two share an office at the high school, but are active at all six of the city's schools, and are often found at after-school and extracurricular events as well.
"We're always on the go," said Gresser, who has an open-door policy with all students who feel a need to talk or voice fears or concerns.
"I'm very happy that so many kids feel comfortable coming to Simon and Scout," Buffington said. "They are very approachable and sometimes it's easier with Scout there for them to talk to Simon about an issue or a problem."
Now that he is a seasoned officer, Scout is also pro-active in sharing his skills and helps Gresser train younger dogs like 2-year-old Mojo, the latest addition to the now-five-dog-strong Hobart police force.
When it was noted how "the times they are a'changin'" in regards to the evolving role of police dogs in society, Scout almost on cue sat up and offered a soft "Woof" in agreement as he prepared to saunter off down the hall to serve and protect his students.