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Sabre taking a bite out of drug crimes in Black Diamond

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By Kevin Hanson-The Courier-Herald

When law enforcement agents raided 13 marijuana-growing operations last week, a Black Diamond duo were front and center.

Police officer Kris Chatterson and his trusty sidekick, Sabre, were among the K-9 units turning up drugs, guns, cash and equipment used in the drug trade.

For Chatterson and young Sabre, it was just another day at the office - although a highly successful one. The team has been working the streets of Black Diamond, and the surrounding area, since early 2007, uncovering illegal drugs on more than 1,000 occasions.

Chatterson, who joined the small-town department in the spring of 1997, had dreamed of becoming a dog handler and adding an official K-9 presence to the Black Diamond force.

“I’d been begging to get a drug dog here for years and years,” Chatterson said. Former Police Chief Rick Luther approved the move in May 2006, setting the wheels in motion. Chatterson signed up for a six-week training session sponsored by the state’s Department of Corrections but found himself in need of a partner.

Drug dogs operate due to an insatiable desire to play with a tennis ball and the folks at the Pierce County Humane Society knew that. They walked past cages filled with homeless dogs, bouncing a tennis ball until they came to Sabre, who “went nuts,” according to Chatterson.

“He almost went through the cage,” the veteran officer said, and Black Diamond’s newest addition was donated to the force.

In the police business, Sabre and other drug dogs possess a high-powered “ball drive,” Chatterson explained. “It’s not that he cares about finding drugs, it’s that he wants his ball,” he said.

Drug dogs are only given their tennis ball when they’ve located something. In Sabre’s case, he’s trained to sniff out marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin and both crack and powder cocaine, depending upon a sense of smell that is 4,400 times greater than a human’s.

After six weeks at the McNeill Island training center, Chatterson and Sabre were certified by the Criminal Justice Training Commission and the Washington State Police Canine Association.

The two have been inseparable since. Sabre rides in Chatterson’s modified police cruiser during four, 10-hour shifts per week and lives with Chatterson and his family.

During his off hours, Sabre is a mellow, family pet. But his attitude changes when Chatterson changes into his police uniform; then, it’s time to go to work.

And there’s no shortage of work for officers and dogs responding to drug calls. “I get at least one real application each day,” Chatterson said, explaining that K-9 units work well outside their jurisdiction. In the south King County area, Auburn has a drug dog, Kent and Renton have two each and Federal Way has a K-9 program.

Wherever the need arises, K-9 units are called to duty. If a Federal Way officer needs a vehicle searched and one of the department’s dogs is not available, Chatterson might get a call. Likewise, if he’s off duty and a search is required in Black Diamond, another agency is brought to town.

On certain occasions, like last week’s coordinated raid of 13 homes by the Drug Enforcement Agency, all the K-9 units are working at once. Chatterson and Sabre were part of a team that uncovered 900 marijuana plants and Sabre then went one step further. Knowing that drug-growing operations are usually accompanied by large amounts of cash, Chatterson went looking, sending Sabre through one of the homes. The black Labrador retriever, who will be 3 years old in November, found a suspicious cardboard box. Inside, in zipped black bags, were eight bundles of cash, $1,000 in each bundle.

Both the bags and money had the residual odor of marijuana.

“There’s notyhing people can do to hide the odor,” Chatterson said, dispelling some common myths. Hiding marijuana inside coffee grounds won’t do the trick, he said, and the scent cannot be washed off. The smell of marijuana permeates whatever it’s stored in, leading dogs and their sensitive noses to their destination.

Keeping a K-9 unit operating in a small department isn’t easy. Chatterson looks for outside money whenever possible to pay for Sabre’s upkeep, which comes to about $2,200 annually.

“I’ve been trying to support the program by writing grants,” he said, noting that money has come most recently from Wal-Mart, the Enumclaw Rotary Club and Black Diamond Community Center. The annual cost covers items like food, grooming, an annual checkup and attendance at an annual, four-day conference sponsored by the Canine Association.

Aside from his field duties, Sabre has been a hit in town, serving as a public relations ambassador for the department. “We’ve been to Cub Scout meetings, preschools, any type of community event,” Chatterson said, noting that his message is generally tailored to his audience. While adults want to see Sabre sniff out drugs, kids just want to pet the dog.

Reach Kevin Hanson at khanson@courierherald.com or 360-802-8205.

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