K-9, sheriff's deputy combat contraband at Calif. jails

For the last 18 months, Mercy and Deputy Jennifer Cole have walked the jails together as one of the four K-9 teams inspecting mail and cells

By Alma Fausto
The Orange County Register

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Mercy enjoys games, like most dogs.

But this 3-year-old’s favorite is sniffing out contraband in the county jails.

“It’s just a game of hide-and-seek to her,” Deputy Jennifer Cole said. “And she’s very good at it.”

For the last 18 months, Mercy and Cole have walked the jails together as one of the four K-9 teams inspecting mail and cells, the entire unit among the security upgrades since a January 2016 escape of three inmates who were eventually nabbed. Among the tools the escapees had was a smuggled-in cell phone.

On a recent morning, Cole and Mercy began their routine at Central Men’s Jail, the Belgian Malinois-German shepherd sifting through a portion of the 800 to 2,000 articles of mail that come in every day, destined for inmates at the men’s jail and the neighboring Women’s Central Jail and Intake and Release Center.

Mercy paced around Cole as another employee handed over a stack of envelopes.

“She wants to get her toy,” Cole said.

It’s a foot-long cylinder made of chewy, canvas-like fabric. She gets to play with it after a find, a meth-soaked greeting card or perhaps an envelope sealed with Suboxone, a prescription drug.

Cole laid out articles of mail separately on the floor and gave Mercy a verbal command.

Quickly, she walked over and smelled each before lingering over a red envelope. She sat down and looked up at Cole – something was inside.

“See that blue-ish hue?” Cole said, pointing to it after carefully opening the envelope.

“They’ll soak it, dry it and sometimes it’s really hard to tell that anything’s been done to it. But (Mercy) will detect it.”

Mercy was rewarded by getting in a few tugs of her toy. Cole’s furry partner then laid down at her feet, waiting for the next command.

Each piece of mail gets a sniff from one of the K-9s. On average, Mercy detects narcotics in the mail three out of every four shifts, Cole estimates. In November, Mercy had 19 narcotics finds. In October, she had 32, and in September she detected 42.

Suspect letters and cards go to investigators, who will try to track down the sender. The inmates who were to get them will be questioned but usually deny any knowledge that they contained contraband.

Some of Mercy’s significant busts have come from large envelopes holding pages of documents made to look like they came from an attorney.

Once, Mercy discovered seven grams of methamphetamine among supposed legal documents to an inmate; another time, there was a gram-plus of meth with four Suboxone strips, tobacco, matches and smoking paper.

In jail cells, Mercy has found a syringe, a meth pipe, a lighter and drugs hidden in mattresses. Not long ago, she sniffed out 10 grams of heroin in a cell.

“They find a way,” Cole said of inmates.

On this particular day, Mercy searched an empty cell, home to two or three men. She ran her nose over discarded paper lunch bags strewn across the floor, then climbed up on top of the bunks and checked over bed sheets and blankets.

She stopped on one bed.

“Looks like someone ‘cheeked’ their (medication),” Cole said, as she picked up and examined a small pill.

Cheeking is hiding medication, between teeth and the cheek, that had been given, properly, to an inmate by a jail staffer. Instead of swallowing it, the inmate will later try to sell it or barter with it inside the jail, or perhaps mix it with other substances to create a different effect.

Another deputy collected the pill, and a folded sheet of paper that Mercy also signaled to.

Mercy is also on the hunt for cell phones.

Though she hasn’t found any yet, she’s one of the increasing number of K-9s throughout the state trained to detect the devices and other electronics. California corrections officials say phones can help inmates commit new crimes, from inside. Even Charles Manson was able to get cell phones into his cell – three times.

So state prisons are ramping up their K-9 units with more cell-phone-sniffing dogs, said Ike Dodson of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“It’s increased as the use of cellphones has increased on the outside,” he said.

There are 57 K-9 teams working for the state correctional system that can detect cellphones, after an eight-strong class of dogs graduated from training earlier this month, Dodson said. That will go up to 70 next September.

“Canine programs are one of the most effective (methods) for identifying contraband,” Dodson said. “They’re a very significant part.”

Inside the jail system, deputies greet Mercy. When Cole gives a verbal command, Mercy trots over to them for head pats and back scratches.

“Everyone asks, ‘Where’s Mercy?’ and I’m like, ‘Hi, I’m here, too,'” Cole said with a laugh.

Cole, a five-year veteran with the department, picked Mercy as a partner a year-and-a-half ago when the department acquired the canine.

Mercy lives with Cole and her family and a boxer named Halo. But Cole is going to patrol duty – and Mercy can’t take on an assignment in the streets.

Her ability to sniff out cell phones is needed at the jail, and alerting her partner to every cell on the outside of the jail’s walls would cause problems. Mercy will pair up with another deputy.

“I’m dreading it,” Cole said of losing her partner. “I’m excited to go to patrol, because that’s what I’ve wanted to do, but it’s still going to be difficult.”

©2017 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

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