ON THE BEAT: Reedley Police Academy gets glimpse of a dog’s life

Detective Rivera and Blue the police dog show off impressive K-9 skills, while dispatchers reveal the complexities of their critical work

Detective Jesus Rivera and Blue from the K-9 unit giving a demonstration of a police dog’s work with a member of the Reedley Police Department Community Member’s Academy. (Darren Fraser)
Darren Fraser
Published June 29, 2024  • 
9:00 am

REEDLEY – The final instruction class of the Reedley Police Department Community Member’s Academy featured a presentation on the department’s K-9 unit – a department fixture since 1979 – and a deep dive into the essential work police dispatchers perform to keep patrol units informed and to keep the community safe.

Blue is a 6-year-old Belgian Malinois. He understands commands in four languages, including Dutch – most police dogs are bred and trained in Europe. During his presentation to the Academy on June 26, Blue’s handler – not trainer – Detective Jesus Rivera repeatedly issued Blue commands in various languages. He also gave Blue hand signals. Blue understood everything said or signaled to him.

Blue’s precociousness was a revelation. As was the fact he can jump a six-foot fence, run 35 mph and find a car key in a soccer field. But perhaps the most interesting fact to emerge from the presentation was that police dogs do what they do for affection.

“When you see a dog biting someone on television, and the officer is yelling, ‘Good boy, good boy,’ he is yelling that because the dog is doing something the officer asked him to do,” Rivera said. “I (as a handler) have to reward him. We praise with words.”

It is a jarring juxtaposition of an individual being mauled and an officer singing his dog’s praises. Rivera understands the disconnect. But he knows that Blue, a member of the Rivera family, is a living, thinking impact weapon. He is also the only tool in law enforcement that can be stopped once it has been sent.

“We brainwash them,” he said. “We are saying, ‘Bite this guy because we’re going to play with you. Find drugs because we’re going to play with you. Do these things because we are going to play with you.’”

Blue is a dual-purpose tool. He finds and apprehends – bites – criminals and he finds drugs. Rivera explained how Blue searches.

“As soon as they walk into a room, they smell something. Like when we smell popcorn,” he said. The science of being a good handler is having the ability to read the room.

“We must put the dog in the most advantageous position to work for the handler,” said Rivera. Dogs search downwind from windows and doors – anywhere there is a draft.

“You’ve seen police dogs bounce left to right,” he said. “They’re creating a funnel, like a flashlight. The bounce from edge to edge, first wide and then getting narrow. Until they find the flashlight.”

DRIVE

“Drive is what we want in a working dog,” said Rivera. Shortly after the pups are born, the training starts.

“We want that aggressive, alpha dog,” he said. “The one growling and shaking the towel.”

Dogs receive their training – the foundation – from the breeder. When the handlers take over, the dogs are already trained.

“Then it’s a matter of bonding with the dog,” said Rivera. He said he trains with Blue one hour per day and twice a month, they train in eight-hour blocks. It costs about $12,000 for a dog to be certified for patrol. The dog costs $4,000, as does each discipline – drugs, weapons, explosives, etc.

Rivera received his training at a six-week canine school. Since joining the K-9 unit, Rivera has progressed in proficiency to the point where he is now only one of 12 handlers in the state cleared to certify dogs for patrol from any police department. He said he recently certified a dog for Merced.

Police dogs typically have four collars and each serves a purpose. Blue wore a big, wide collar, known as a flat collar. Rivera said this was his everyday collar. It is comfortable about the dog’s neck and used when the dog is on leash and tracking a suspect. Blue also wore an electric collar or e-collar directly behind his ears. Rivera compared it to placing his hand on his son’s shoulder to get his attention.

“A little zap. Gets his attention,” he said. “Remember, this is like a two-year old with sharp teeth.” The e-collar also prevents a dog from biting a suspect who has given up.

The presentation concluded with each Academy member putting on the training sleeve and playing a bit of tug of war with Blue. Rivera said dogs are trained to bite with the rear of their jaws and to push, which brings the action to, rather than away from, the suspect.

“With pushing, the dog is right up at you, like it’s going to eat you,” said Rivera.

Perhaps in theory, but observing Blue at work, it was apparent he had little trouble pulling members in any direction he desired.

DISPATCH

Amanda Lopez is a Communications Dispatcher II (CTO) with the Reedley Police Department. She has been with the department for two years, serving as a dispatcher trainer for the past year. She has been working as a dispatcher for a total of seven years.

Stephanie Arevalo is a Communications Dispatcher I. Her two-year anniversary with the department is in September. Pamela Staggs is the department’s Records/Dispatch Supervisor. She has been with Reedley PD for 17 years. They are three of the seven full time dispatchers employed by the department.

Lopez asked the audience what a dispatcher does. After a member recited a list of activities, Lopez said, “Yes. They multitask. All day long.”

The discussion turned to training. Lopez said dispatchers complete four phases of training, with each phase lasting about a month. In the first phase, they answer and log non-emergency calls. Near the end of this phase, trainees answer 9-1-1 calls.

Phase two consists of answering radio calls. In the third phase, dispatchers handle both phone and radio calls.

“A lot of multitasking,” said Lopez.

During the final phase, the shadow phase, dispatchers are answering calls on their own. A supervisor shadows the employee, either listening on the radio or standing behind them. This phase is crucial because dispatchers often work alone. They are responsible for answering phones and radios; dispatching patrols; logging information; and providing a calm and reassuring voice to distressed callers.

Arevalo said shifts are staggered such that it is the rule, not the exception, that dispatchers work alone for a number of hours during a shift.

The ability to work autonomously is crucial because of the heavy workload dispatchers carry, including:

  • Always being ready to serve 24/7;
  • Answering 9-1-1 and non-emergency calls;
  • Dispatching patrol officers to calls over the radio;
  • Running subjects for any wants/warrants as well as vehicle information for patrol;
  • Assisting other law enforcement agencies with priority calls, such as CHP, Fresno County Sheriff’s Office (FSO), and other supporting agencies, and
  • Assisting members of the community who enter the department lobby for assistance.

Dispatchers often do these simultaneously.

PRIORITIZING

Dispatchers must prioritize calls based on their level of urgency. This does not always sit well with callers. Reedley has 25,000 residents, which means one dispatcher is responsible for that population. This can result in longer hold times for some calls. For example, emergency calls receive priority over non-emergency calls. Dispatchers will send units to a “shots fired” call immediately. Anyone hoping for a quick resolution to a barking dog or loud music will be disappointed.

Cell phones ping off the nearest cell phone tower. If a Reedley resident places a call in Selma, that call will be handled by Selma PD/dispatch. With respect to areas outside a specific city’s jurisdiction, the call will be handled by the FSO or the CHP.

“We always transfer to the right agency,” said Arevalo.

Lopez said dispatchers will always ask for the address of the emergency.

“We want to know right away if you need to be talking to us or somebody else so you don’t have to repeat the information multiple times,” she said.

Staggs said the department now utilizes a program called Rapid Deploy, which can narrow the location of a call and let the dispatcher know what direction the car is traveling, when applicable. She added that callers can always text 911, which provides a layer of safety during school shootings or home invasions.

To give an idea of the life of a dispatcher, Lopez, Arevalo and Staggs paused their collective presentation to play a recording of a call Staggs took two years ago. The call was chaotic, which is nothing unusual for dispatchers. A motorcyclist, who was a burglary suspect, was being pursued by Dinuba Police Department. Dinuba canceled its pursuit after they lost track of the suspect. Staggs was the call taker and dispatcher.

The suspect crashed his bike at the Buttonwillow roundabout. He then carjacked a vehicle. A Reedley officer tracked down the vehicle. The carjacker abandoned the car on Englehart and ran. The officer pursued. As the two were running nearly parallel about 10 feet apart, the suspect pulled a gun. Despite being tased, the man was able to keep his gun pointed at the officer. The officer fired his gun multiple times, dropping the suspect. 

However, the suspect got back up. The officer replaced his magazine and attempted to fire, but nothing happened – a bad primer strike. The suspect began firing. The officer took off on foot. The suspect bolted towards the officer’s patrol car. He was unable to start it because the officer had set a disabling feature before leaving the vehicle. As the suspect began pulling on the rifle locked inside the car, the officer, with a new magazine, shot and killed the suspect.

When Staggs answers the phone, the caller describes the crash. Staggs asks the caller to hold on and contacts a patrol about the crash and the location.

The caller continues, saying the cyclist is trying to get into cars. Again, Staggs interrupts.

“Is he trying to get into cars?” she asks. When the caller confirms, Staggs asks her to hold, again, and relays this information to patrol.

Another call is heard in the background. Staggs asks the woman to hold on while she attends to the other call. Meanwhile, the caller is providing a description of the cyclist. We can hear Staggs entering information on her computer. The caller says the cyclist is leaving in a white car. Staggs asks his direction. The caller asks if she can follow. Again, Staggs asks his direction. The caller says west on Dinuba.

Staggs relays this information to patrol. The caller is distracted by the presence of a police vehicle.

“Don’t hang up on me, ma’am, okay, because I will need all your information,” Staggs says. She then asks for the make of the white vehicle. The caller doesn’t seem to hear. Staggs asks the caller for the make of her vehicle. Staggs then asks where the caller is in proximity to the white vehicle. All the while she is entering information. When the caller gives her location, Staggs relays this to patrol. She then asks the driver to confirm the direction she is headed. Staggs enters information and informs patrol of the vehicle’s new location on Englehart after turning right from Dinuba.

As the situation intensifies, Staggs asks the woman to hold on and, if they get disconnected, to call back. Staggs continues to enter information. While all of this is unfolding, a phone is ringing in the background and chatter is coming over the radio.

“Don’t hang up, okay?” Staggs says, typing furiously. As the caller languishes over the fact the carjacker has abandoned the vehicle and is running away from the police, Staggs reins her in.

“Ma’am, I need you to hold on, okay?” she says. The caller screams as she witnesses the gun battle and the line goes dead.

The call lasted just over four minutes.

Darren Fraser
Reporter