For the first time in its history, the Maryland Transportation Authority Police has its own drug-sniffing dog squad.
At the heart of the unit, which will assist the authority police in drug-interdiction efforts along highways, tunnels, toll bridges, airport terminals and the port of Baltimore, are six German shepherds imported from Czechoslovakia and Holland. Each has been bred for sense of smell, work ethic and high sociability to humans, officers said.
The police officers who are handling the canines are pleased with their new assignment.
"It's the best time of my life," said Officer John McCarty, petting his dog Max who sat quietly. "I've always wanted to be a police officer, and I love animals. ... Now I have the best of both worlds."
The unit has five other officer-dog teams: Keith Anderson and Casper, Michael Brant and Ada, Robert Cashen and Dingo, William Hux and Maxx, and Gerald Lantz and Arie. The officers and their dogs were trained at a six-week training program at Beck's Canine Service, a privately run company in Wilmington, N.C., that helps prepare police officers for canine duty.
Kevin Beck, the co-owner of Beck's, said drug-sniffing dogs are a distinctive breed.
"Their sense of smell is 100 times better than a human's," said Beck, a 25-year police veteran. "They can inhale and exhale five times in one second. ... Try doing that yourself."
The six officers volunteered to join the unit and said working with their canine partners requires full-time dedication. Each animal lived at Beck's 15-acre facility for more than a month, and now the dogs live with their partners at their homes, becoming part of their families.
The unit saw its first action the night of Dec. 29, and while none of the teams made any drug seizures, the shift was "just like training, everything clicked," McCarty said.
Despite the close bond formed between the officers and their dogs, the officers say the focus is on their anti-drug mission.
"We're stopping the drugs," Cashen said. "I think that's the most important thing. I'm a father and none of us wanna see our kids getting mixed up with drugs. The more we get off the street, the less likely that'll be."
Before now, the authority police has been forced to rely on drug dogs from other police agencies to run narcotics-interdiction operations at facilities such as Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the port of Baltimore.
The initiative to add a dedicated police dog/narcotics unit to the agency was spearheaded by authority police Chief Gary W. McLhinney, a 22-year Baltimore police force veteran appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2002.
"The [authority police] has a role to play here. ... We need to get into the narcotics game, and these units help us do just that," McLhinney said. Authority police officers seized more than $60,000 in drug-related assets last year, most of which was used to fund the new unit's training and equipment, McLhinney said.
"The irony here is that we're using drug money to catch drug dealers. There's no taxpayer expense involved [in the creation of the police dog/drug unit]," McLhinney said.
The unit will be dispatched separately to areas of authority police jurisdiction, with some teams running spot checks on authority properties while others will be on highway patrol, writing speeding tickets. Other police agencies, however, may request a "scan" by an authority police dog/narcotics team, and the nearest one will be sent to assist, McLhinney said.