Last month, Officer “Vali” of the Tomhawk Police Department’s K9 unit entered into her second year of service with the department.
A Belgian Malinois born in Croatia in 2011, Vali received some of her initial training in Germany before arriving at “K9 Working Dogs International” in Longford, Kansas, for 15 days of focused and rigorous night and day training in the areas of drug detection and tracking.
Vali arrived in Tomahawk shortly after completing her training in late May of 2013.
However, as police chief Al Elvins III explains, her arrival was expected to be much later due to the projected completion of fund raising for the K9 program.
In fact, upon stepping in as Chief of Police in 2012, Elvins found himself facing not only what he considered to be a considerable drug problem in the small northwoods town, but also the organization of the department’s first ever K9 unit.
“I noticed a large drug problem in the city and there was not a great deal of enforcement action being taken in the past few years.” the 19-year law enforcement veteran stated in an interview with the Merrill Courier, shortly after Officer “Vali’s” arrival in June of 2013. “We also had a property crime issue which was directly related to the drug issue including a high number of burglaries and auto entries.”
Elvins’ answer to the problem was a K9 unit.
Prior to relocating to Tomahawk, Elvins had worked as an investigator with the Houston County Sheriff’s Office in Warner Robins, GA. He attributes many of his experiences there, with pursuing a K9 unit in Tomahawk.
“So many other issues arise when an agency has a drug problem in its jurisdiction. Pretty much everything we faced in Houston County, from homicides to prostitution, stemmed from drugs,” Elvins said. “I had worked with K9 units in the past and had seen how valuable they can be in combating drugs. I felt a K9 unit here in Tomahawk could compliment the officers, and help us work on resolving the drug issues in this town.”
In addition to organizing a K9 unit, Elvins organized another department first in the form of a narcotics investigation unit headed by investigator John DuPlayee, a 30-year department veteran.
“Since we created the narcotics unit, John’s job is strictly drug investigations. A big part of that of course is patrol, getting out there and making contacts,” Elvins adds.
Upon garnering approval from the Tomahawk City Council, in January of 2013 Elvins and DuPlayee set about meeting with community groups and businesses, seeking financial assistance for the K9 program as well as sending out informational flyers to bolster their cause.
Elvins hoped to raise enough funds by June 1 of 2013 and have the unit on the street by the fall. However, the end result surpassed Elvins’ expectations.
“We surpassed our goal and had secured enough funds as of March to move forward with the program. That came as a very pleasant surprise to us to say the least. By raising the funds so much earlier than expected, we were able to have our unit fully equipped and on patrol by June,” the 46-year-old northern New York native stated.
In total, the grass roots fundraising effort totaled $50,000 in just three months.
The funding was then used to purchase Vali, train her and her handler, purchase a fully equipped 2009 Dodge Charger for the two of them as well as set funds aside for incidentals associated with having a K9 unit such as food and other equipment. In addition, the department was able to create and invest in a maintenance fund to support future K9 units.
Furthermore, Dr. Julie Germano of the Animal Clinic of Tomahawk stepped forward to donate all of Vali’s veterinary care needs.
“The outpouring of community support was just amazing,” Elvins added. “It seemed we just had people coming from all directions to donate and help out with the fundraising. That level of support made it clear the community wanted this program as much as we did. The Bierman Family Foundation was very generous as well as many, many business owners, citizens and of course Dr. Julie. From the very start she has offered her time and services free of charge and we are so appreciative. Whatever Vali has needed, or whenever she has needed anything, Dr. Julie has been right there to help. I can’t say enough how much we appreciate everything the community has done for Vali and our department.”
In turn, Elvins has strived to bring Vali in as not only a police dog, but also an active member of her community.
“We decided from the very start, we did not want a patrol dog. We just have no need for one. We wanted a dog who can help us with our drug problem, help us find people when we needed to and most of all, a dog we can introduce to the community and participate in community events,” Elvins said.
Thus far, it appears as if Vali has fulfilled her multi-faceted role. To date, Vali and her handler Tom Tollefson, a 12-year department veteran, have taken part in several presentations and demonstrations in the community, averaging between 4 and 6 per year.
“It’s a win-win for Vali and the community when we go out and do activities such as school and library programs,” Tollefson explained. “The community sees firsthand what they paid for. Community members enjoy the interaction and of course Vali loves it as much as they do. She loves the attention.”
From the enforcement aspect, both Elvins and Tollefson agree, the last year has been very busy for both Vali and the department.
For the department as a whole, a total of 120 drug charges have been filed in the last year, including cocaine, methamphetamine and prescription drugs. As for Vali, Tollefson reports 282 total deployments, resulting in 12 drug related arrests.
One deployment in particular occurred on Dec. 7 of last year.
As Tollefson explained, a Lincoln County deputy had stopped a vehicle when the driver decided to flee on foot. Vali was called to assist.
“There was some light snow on the ground with some light foot prints, but that was about all,” Tollefson said. “But even in areas where the footprints weren’t so visible, she was able to track the scent of the person from the disturbed ground where he had stepped. She ended up tracking him for a mile and a half, eventually leading to his arrest. We were all pretty impressed.”
Tollefson reports marijuana as being the most prevalent drug he and Vali are finding on patrol, but also states methamphetamine, cocaine and prescription drugs have been found on occasion.
“Vali is trained to find drugs by following the scent to the area of the strongest odor,” Tollefson explained last Thursday as he and Vali prepared to start their 11 a.m.-11 p.m. shift.
“When she finds the area of strongest odor, she is trained to ‘hit’ by indicating where the odor is and I take it from there,” Tollefson said. “She’s a rockstar when it comes to her job! “She is very good and constantly amazes me with what she is capable of.”
A native of Marshfield, being a K9 handler wasn’t immediately on Tollefson’s RADAR for job prospects, nor was law enforcement for that matter.
“I attended the University of Wisconsin La Crosse and majored in Recreation Management,” he explained with a bit of a smile. “Being a law enforcement officer had never crossed my mind to be honest. I played baseball at UW-L and when I graduated, I found work in my hometown of Marshfield as an After School Program Coordinator.”
The idea of law enforcement presented itself one day while Tollefson was at work, when he was approached by the Marshfield Police Chief.
“I had gone to school and played ball with his son, so we were familiar with each other already. One day he came into the school and during conversation, he mentioned law enforcement. I thought about it for a while and decided to go on a ride along – I loved it!” Tollefson recalls. “I really liked the people aspect, being able to go out and talk to a variety of people every day, constantly doing different things and having the opportunity to help people in so many ways really made an impression on me. I decided to give it a shot.”
Tollefson later graduated from NTC’s Police Recruit School in November of 2002 and was hired by the Tomahawk Police Department in January of 2003.
“My grandparents lived in Tomahawk most of their lives so I was already familiar with the area from visiting when I was a kid,” he said. “Law enforcement is an extremely competitive job field so I was very lucky to have gotten hired so quickly. I really enjoy the work and my family and I have since made Tomahawk our home.”
Even after working in law enforcement, being a K9 handler was not a part of Tollefson’s career goals.
“I actually envisioned myself becoming a School Resource Officer,” he said. “I never considered being a handler until we had our own K9 program with the department. I knew the reason she was here was to be an additional asset in making our community safer and help get drugs off the street. My wife and I are raising our children here so of course I fully supported that. It was something completely new to me so I decided to give it a go.”
Yet again, Tollefson found himself pleasantly surprised by the work.
“It’s a lot of fun working with her,” he said. “Like I said before, she is just so good at what she does and she takes her job very seriously.”
Like many other K9 teams, Vali accompanies Tollefson home each day and resides with Tollefson and his family.
“That was another aspect on making the decision to take on the K9 handler role,” he added. “I had to consider my wife and children, as well as her being a new addition to our family. But it’s been great, She has her own space at our house. She interacts and plays with our two children,”
But when it comes time to go back to work, Vali seems to know immediately.
“It just amazes me how she just knows,” Tollefson said. “I don’t even have to say anything about work or encourage her, the minute she sees me pick up my uniform to start getting ready she just gets so excited! She is ready to get to work when I am still getting ready on most days.”
As with many aspects of law enforcement, there are misconceptions by the general public on the role of a K9 unit and how a police dog performs their duties. One such misconception is that of K9 officer being strictly devoted to drug work.
While the duo performs as many drug interdiction activities as possible, Tollefson’s top priority remains being a patrolman.
“That may be possible in other areas,” Tollefson explained. “But here in Tomahawk I am still responsible for answering calls and traffic enforcement the same as any other officer. The only real difference between me and other officers is the fact of Vali and I having other responsibilities.”
Another common misconception is that of a police dog’s sense of smell being “fooled” by concealing the scent of drugs with other substances.
“There has always been that idea out there and it probably always will be,” Tollefson said. “But it just doesn’t work that way. Vali’s sniffer is so sensitive that she can smell each scent individually. If someone tries to cover the scent of drugs, she will still smell the drug scent along with whatever they are trying to cover it with whether it be coffee, pepper or whatever else people come up with. It’s almost impossible to fool a dog’s nose.”
While accompanying Vali and Tollefson on Thursday, the Merrill Courier was given a first hand “real time” look at Vali at work.
Shortly after the shift began, Vali was asked by Chief Elvins to “have a walk around” a car that had been recently impounded following a drug arrest.
At the sight of the car, Vali became very excited.
When Tollefson brought the SUV to a stop and opened her passenger door, her slender tan frame immediately sprang toward the car, but with just a single German command from Tollefson, Vali immediately calmed and lay at his feet at the rear of the vehicle.
She remained there, very still until another command was given by Tollefson, and she went to work.
In excited fashion she followed her partner around the vehicle rendering a positive “hit” near the front of the car and near the trunk area.
Even though the vehicle had been searched prior to being seized, Tollefson rewarded Vali with her most prized possession; a rubber ball attached to a rope.
An ensuing search of the vehicle did not yield anything of value, but Tollefson quickly pointed out due to the high sensitivity of Vali’s “sniffer” she is able to detect the scent of narcotics long after narcotics are removed from an area.
“That helps explain why many times police dogs will hit on a vehicle or an area but nothing is found. In many cases drugs, or the scent of drugs, may have been present at one time and she is simply detecting the residual scent,” he explained.
Through the remainder of Thursday’s shift, Tollefson performed traffic stops for speed and various equipment violations. During each stop, Vali was deployed and seemed satisfied with her inspections.
“I inform motorists of my intent to walk her around the cars to keep her active and for the most part they are ok with it,” Tollefson said. “Having her constantly working not only keeps her active, but serves as a form of training for both of us, as well as serving as a deterrent. The more visible she is, the more aware people are that she is out there working. Especially those that may be carrying things they shouldn’t.”
Despite the relatively busy afternoon, Tollefson makes a point to stop off at a local park.
“Training is key for any drug dog,” he explained as he retrieves the ball and rope. “Various types of training such as obedience, tracking and drug finds keep both of us sharp. She listens to me very well, but re-enforcing obedience is always good. It just reminds her to act only on command.”
Tollefson demonstrates this by giving his partner a command to lie down. When she complies, he then gives the ball a strong throw.
Despite Vali being eager to pursue and perhaps even a bit “antsy,” she renders a few anxious whines but remains in place. Only when Tollefson gives the command, does she quickly pursue, sniff and locate the ball.
Upon her return, Officer Vali appears quite excited and proud of her prize prancing about and gripping the ball playfully in her jaws, almost as if she was smiling a bit.
Tollefson’s praise and behind the ear scratches are added bonuses.
“She has a very strong drive to succeed, which is one reason why she is so good at what she does,” Tollefson added.
Elvins and Tollefson estimate Vali’s career to span another 5-8 years, possibly longer.
“Every dog is different, but we couldn’t be happier with her,” Elvins said. “She has done a fantastic job in helping us reduce our drug problem since she started working with us. Thankfully, due to the funds we were able to raise we have a fund started to maintain the program when she retires. We continually add to the fund whenever possible.”
Chief Elvins, Officer Tollefson and his four legged partner would like to express their appreciation for the Tomahawk community’s past and continued support for the Tomahawk Police K9 program.
“There is no way we could have done it without the community behind us,” Elvins added. “They did it all.”