The Pasco Sheriff’s Office has added another K-9 to its unit of about two dozen — but it’s not the traditional search and seizure police dog frequently utilized by law enforcement agencies.
Instead, this dog, a 3-year-old yellow Labrador named Phi, is paired with a forensics investigator and trained to detect decomposing human remains.
More commonly known as a human remains detection dog, K-9 Phi ignores live human scent and animal scent as to indicate odors on human remains, whether it be related to crime scenes, old missing persons cases, or natural or man-made disaster events.
Phi is believed to be the only human remains detection/forensics K-9 employed by a law enforcement agency in the Tampa Bay area. He was purchased and trained through donations from service organization Phi Delta Kappa in Odessa.
Pasco Sheriff Cpl. Jimmy Hall heads up the agency’s new forensic K-9 unit.
The unit is modeled after the FBI’s dog scent program, and Hall said it takes the concept of cadaver dogs to a new level in identifying and solving crime scenes.
That’s because Phi and similarly trained dogs don’t just search for bodies. They also identify the presence of trace amounts of human bones, bodily fluids and decomposing material — whether buried underground, underwater, smeared on a car or elsewhere.
“We’re bringing these dogs to search these trace amounts, which is really the difference that’s not being done out there,” Hall said.
Phi has received roughly 12 weeks of in-house operational training. He also gets weekly maintenance training.
In learning to train forensics dogs, Hall and sheriff’s office personnel visited the FBI’s training academy in Virginia.
In essence, forensics dogs like Phi are trained like bomb or drug-sniffing dogs, where they’re rewarded for being able to identify a particular targeted odor, Hall said.
“We saw what they had and how they use the dogs, and got some great ideas from them,” Hall said.
Hall noted during that trip, trained forensics dogs were able to indicate odor on a pre-Civil War gravesite. “I not necessarily would’ve believed that if I wasn’t there watching it myself,” Hall said.
The greatest benefit of a forensics K-9, Hall said, is helping investigators to conduct more thorough evidence gathering outside the realm of a primary crime scene, or where the crime actually occurred.
The law enforcement explained: “If we’ve got a crime scene at a house, we can deploy the dog starting a block out if we want to, and it’s possible to find evidence for that crime…that we would’ve never come across.
“If you’re going to put 15 to 20 detectives and forensic investigators out to comb an area, they’re limited by sight. We can put this dog down and the odor is going to be much more powerful, and we can cover a larger area with that.”
Phi’s handler, forensics investigator Heidi Sievers, echoed that significance.
“We have only the ability of our sight and also some other technological tools that we have,” said Sievers, who has been partnered with Phi since March. “This is just one more check and balance to make sure that we’re covering the entirety of the scene.”
So far, Phi has been deployed about 20 times by the sheriff’s office and other agencies needing assistance. He’s done three deployments with Sievers.
The dog has been the sheriff’s office for about a year. He previously worked in different capacities with other handlers.
Besides assisting the forensics unit, Phi has also become a welcome addition to the Sievers’ household.
The forensics investigator had never owned a dog before, but Phi quickly developed a bond within her household.
“I have a daughter so she loves him, so it’s been really nice,” Sievers said. “He’s easy, he’s great, low maintenance. He’s very friendly. He just lives to run and work.”
Meanwhile, the sheriff’s office will soon add another human detection K-9 to its unit, for investigator Sue Miller. A third dog of its type is being utilized by an agency volunteer, as well.
As well as assisting with crime solving, the agency believes the forensic K-9 unit will eventually help in another area.
“This is something we know will also add to our recruitment,” Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said. “The fact that people want this opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be able to have a canine,’ that is very unique.”
Published June 19, 2019