It was near midnight on a steamy July evening and Atlas, a beloved Miami police dog, and his handler were hot on the heels of an armed robber. As Atlas leapt, the robber turned and fired, striking the K9. Yet the dog continued the chase, protecting his partner and helping capture a crook who remains behind bars 15 years later.
But Atlas, a 2-year-old Belgian Malanois, didn’t make it, becoming the only Miami K9 known to have died in the line of duty. Now, Miami police are trying to make sure it never happens again.
On Friday, newly-installed Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, surrounded by seven of the department’s police dogs — some yelping, others at perfect attention — announced a new plan to keep the animals safer when facing a hostile encounter.
A company called Pet Armor has covered the cost of a dozen bullet and knife-proof jackets for dogs at a cost of more than $11,000. The green vinyl vests, which wrap around the midsection and chest, have steel liners.
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“The community has come together to help us do our job,” said Llanes from the steps of Miami police headquarters. City Commissioner Frank Carollo offered a certificate of appreciation to the company.
Lisette Guillen, a manager with Vested Interest, a nonprofit that helps find donors to buy vests for police dogs, said K9s needed the added protection. “Often they’re the first ones in, and the last ones out.”
Of course, the dogs had no comment on the vests. But they seemed unaffected by the extra 4.5 pounds of safety gear.
Bolt, a 6-year-old black and brown German Shephard wouldn’t stop leaping into the arms of Officer Javier Gonzalez. Actually, Bolt was jumping into everyone’s arms, at one point almost knocking over a photographer trying to film him.
Boss, a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois was a little more restrained. He proudly showed off his new vest with the large black K9 insignia while standing at attention next to Sgt. Albert Perez. But Boss refused to drop the slimy tennis ball he had clutched in his mouth. And when he did, he pulled and jumped and retrieved the toy as if it was the most important thing in the world.
Because of their energy level and ability to learn, K9s are extremely popular with law enforcement and are also used at the federal level and in military operations. They generally stand between near three feet tall and weigh close to 60 pounds.
Most are initially trained in Europe then purchased and shipped here at a cost often upward of $10,000. They live with their handlers, which helps in training and loyalty. Besides seeking out bad guys, they’re excellent at sniffing out drugs and weapons, even bullets.
The K9s are even used in military operations overseas. Cairo, a malinois who works with the U.S. Navy Seals was a member of Operation Neptune Spear and was in Osama Bin Laden’s compound in 2011 the day the terroristwas killed by Navy Seal Team Six members.
Watching Friday’s event from the sideline, Deputy Police Chief Luis Cabrera said it would be great if the department could get enough vets to outfit all 19 of its police dogs.
“We’re still short 7,” he said. “We need more sponsors.”