With sirens blaring, Stafford Township K-9 Officer Robert Conforti crouched at the bow of a rescue boat and tightly clutched his German shepherd partner Titan’s leash.
The search was over. The suspect was spotted on the beach.
Titan watched the beach intently as the “suspect,” decoy John Devlin, shouted and paced while holding a gun.
Although it was a mock training scenario, in Titan’s mind, this was the man police were looking for.
The wind whipped on the bay as Laurelton Volunteer Fire Company Firefighter Mike Pretty steered the boat to shore and Conforti sternly gave attack commands to 18-month-old Titan.
“Show me your hands! Show me your hands! I’m sending the dog up!” Conforti shouted to Devlin, who shot blank rounds into the air.
With that, Conforti released Titan and ran up the beach behind the dog as Titan jumped on Devlin and sunk his teeth into his arm, which is protected by a special sleeve for training.
“Rob, you gave him a ton of confidence. He knew you guys had to go. That’s loyalty,” K-9 trainer and Atlantic City K-9 Officer Joe Rodriguez told Conforti as he and Titan climbed back on the boat.
This was the scene Thursday morning in Brick Township as F Cove police officers from Ocean, Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties trained their new K-9 partners on the water. Participating were officers from Stafford Township, Little Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic City, Galloway Township, Hamilton Township, Vineland, Millville and Cape May County Sheriff’s Department.
Training also was conducted at Atlantic County’s John “Sonny” Burke Police K-9 Academy in Corbin City.
Titan is Conforti’s fourth K-9 partner, and Conforti has been in the department’s K-9 Unit since 1999. He said K-9 officers cannot rely on a 16-week training to fully train a dog.
“We don’t go home and throw our keys on the counter and we’re done for the day. We have to take care of the dog and prepare for the next day,” Conforti said.
In February 2010, as part of a cost-saving measure, Stafford Township disbanded the K-9 Unit and also laid off five police officers.
Township officials said that it cost about $26,000 to send two officers to K-9 training each year, in addition to veterinary costs and other expenses for the dogs.
By April 2010, the K-9 Unit was reinstated and all five police officers were returned to work by January 2011.
Conforti is attending the academy with K-9 Officer Chris Smith and his dog Ollie. Smith was one of the five officers who were laid off in 2010.
Little Egg Harbor Township K-9 Police Officer Matthew Pretty is attending the academy with his new dog, Sully, a German shepherd. Pretty, who is also an instructor at the academy, had to euthanize his former K-9 partner in October after it was discovered that he had a tumor in his chest cavity.
Pretty said instructors at the academy try give the officers and dogs every scenario possible as part of their training.
Pretty said 17-month-old Sully and Jax are two totally different dogs with different characteristics.
“I just needed to recharge and training Sully got me focused. This is totally different from the first time I went through here. There are days though when I slip and call him Jax or the other instructors do,” Pretty said.
The class of 15 K-9 officers and their partners will graduate from the academy on May 11 and will then hit the streets with their newly trained dogs after the 16-week training academy.
“We try to break the officers down to get the best of every part of the training. It is an intense training and not for everybody,” Rodriguez said.
One officer was released from the academy in the 10th week and seven dogs that could not complete the training program were let go, he said.
Rodriguez said during the training every few days the schedule changes and something more realistic is added. Rodriguez said the current class is on the larger side. He said although some departments have disbanded K-9 units over the past few years, it is not trend he sees continuing.
“They need the dogs for all kinds of stuff: tracking, patrol work and especially in cities where it is violent. Some departments will get rid of them for monetary reasons and then they bring them right back,” he said.
The Atlantic City Police Department went nearly a year without K-9 dogs after Mayor Lorenzo Langford ordered them off the streets in summer 2009, following accusations they were being misused. At the time, he held a news conference and showed photos of an open leg wound but would not name the person who was bitten or the circumstances surrounding the incident.
An investigation was launched but found no problems, then-Deputy Police Chief Ernest Jubilee said when the dogs returned in July 2010.
Devlin, an Atlantic City police officer and first-time K-9 handler of Clancy, an 18-month-old Belgian Malinois, also attended the training Thursday.
“It’s intense. I was a former Marine and this is comparable,” Devlin said. “Being a cop in Atlantic City is hard enough but adding on tactics, the responsibility of being a K-9 handler and being 37 years old is tough.”
Devlin said the dog acts as a deterrent and contributes to saving lives.
“People see dogs and they stop fighting. It changes people’s mentality,” Devlin said.
Devlin said earlier this year Cathy Burke, owner of the Irish Pub purchased the $7,000 K9 dog for the city police department.
The department has three K-9 officers in this class: Officer George Adams, handler of Grip; Garry Stowe, handler of Zeus; and Devlin.
Local officers at the academy
Atlantic City Police Department: George Adams, John Devlin and Garry Stowe
Vineland Police Department: William Bonticue and Robert Magee
Millville Police Department: Mike Calchi
Stafford Township Police Department: Robert Conforti and Chris Smith
Cape May County Sheriff’s Department: Jose Gomez
Little Egg Harbor Township Police Department: Matthew Pretty
Hamilton Township Police Department: Chris Robell
Galloway Township Police Department: Scott Winneberger
Staff Writer Lynda Cohen contributed to this report.
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