How Police Dogs Turned Into Cybernetic Hunters

police dog swat

A German Shepherd lies on a stretcher in a sterile exam room, tucked in a fleece blanket. The room’s perimeter is lined with men in crisp khaki uniforms, handguns strapped to their sagging utility belts. A shrill beep sounds over a radio, and an impassive dispatcher’s voice is heard over the men’s gentle sniffling.

“TBP 743, Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office to all units, clear channel for last call. Standby on all radio traffic. Sheriff’s Office to K-9 Argo… End of watch for K-9 Argo. On October 10th, 2015. Rest in peace, K-9 Argo. TBP 743. Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. Clearing out at… 11:16.”

Four more beeps. The dog lifts his head, and the uniformed men step forward. “Good boy,” mutters one man between sniffles, ruffling the fur on its head. The dog’s jaw plops open as he pants, and the titanium caps on his incisors catch the glint of the fluorescent exam lights. Another hand reaches forward to pull the blanket over the dog’s shoulders as he nestles into the stretcher and closes his eyes.

On October 15, a police dog named Argo from Hidalgo County, Texas, was facing euthanasia after a battle with an aggressive strain of bone cancer. As a local hero of the South Texas law enforcement community, Argo was granted a last radio call—a traditional ceremony which suspends activity on the police scanner to put out a final “call” for a fallen officer.

A lieutenant’s grainy cellphone video of the intimate service went viral. In the following week it was picked up by The Today Show, Fox News, MSNBC, Buzzfeed, and The Daily Mail. As the video spread, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department was inundated with outpourings from the strangers across the world, ranging from donations and emotive poems, to an open invitation for a free fishing trip from a charter boat company across the country.

Within a few days the video had been shared hundreds of thousands of times, a spectacle of public mourning.

Argo was one of thousands of dogs in America working for the state, referred to within the law enforcement community as K-9s. The mechanism of the modern K-9, with which many are unfamiliar, delineates it as more of a weapon than a pet. Engineered and imported from Europe by breed specialists, dogs on the force are now equipped with titanium teeth and thousands of dollars’ worth of protective technology, from ballistic vests to custom canine body cams.

The majority of domestic K-9s are “dual purpose,” meaning they’re trained rigorously to both sniff out drugs and protect their handlers by any means necessary. Traditionally and presently, most dogs are trained from puppyhood primarily to relish in the activity of biting and tearing into human limbs, and to detect of drugs or IEDs.

Tales of K-9 heroism abound, which is one reason they’re so beloved by their handlers—and the public. When a French bomb-sniffing dog named Diesel was killed in a police raid following the Paris terrorist attacks in November, tens of thousands of people tweeted in support. And for human police officers, the dogs’ singular sense of mission inspires their own loyalty.

“They don’t sleep in our houses, and they don’t play with our families,” Sergeant Michael Goosby, the chief K-9 trainer for the LAPD’s Metropolitan Division, told the New York Times in November. “They exist for one reason: hunting bad guys.”

But these dogs are dynamic systems. Their capacity for decision and error is both their biggest flaw and greatest strength. The dog, a learning machine, makes its own exceptions to situations based on an array of variables, including tells from their handler. Since these decisions ultimately lead to reception of a reward, then they are no longer innocent agents but cybernetic mercenaries, with decision making that is open to influence.

Given their inherently imperfect judgement and the dire consequences of their mistakes, why do dogs remain in the forefront of law enforcement?

Read the full article at VICE.

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