Bobby looks like a black Labrador, except that his ears stand upright, forming two stiff peaks. They're quivering now, as Bobby crouches, ready to lunge at me. He's not making a sound, but his body is tensed, deadly as a cocked pistol. When his handler, a police officer named Ben Harris, orders him to attack, the dog is on me in a flash, snapping his jaws around my right forearm and shaking his head with a frenzied force that whips my torso like that of a rag doll. Although he's growling, Bobby's not mad at me. He's biting because he's been trained to bite. He's wagging his tail because he thinks this exercise is more fun than any human could imagine.
Because I'm wearing padding, I'm not screaming with pain, but it's clear to me I would be if Bobby's teeth had pierced my normal clothing. They'd be deep in the bloody meat of my arm, sunk down to the bone. Even through the heavy quilting, the power in Bobby's bite is frightening. When Harris orders the dog to release me, he backs off but starts barking with such aggression in his voice and posture that that's scary too. Were I a bad guy, I suspect I'd do whatever Harris commanded, to make sure he kept Bobby in check.That's the idea behind the San Diego Police Department's canine unit. Established 20 years ago this past February, the department boasts that it has more dogs than any other law-enforcement agency west of the Mississippi. (Close to 50 animals are usually in service or enrolled in the police-dog academy.) "The dogs give us another option so that the police officers don't have to use their guns," says Bill Nelson, a 27-year veteran who ran the department's SWAT team for 5 years back in the mid-1990s, then took over as the supervisor of the dog group in September of 2001. "I compare it to SWAT because it's a high-speed, low-drag outfit," Nelson says. "And the training they do is just amazing."
Nelson suggested I ride along with one of the canine cops. I wound up accompanying Officer Jim Stevens and his dog, Morris, as they began their ten-hour shift on the limpid Friday afternoon that marked the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend. The two seem made for one another. The policeman is 6'3", and when his dog stands up on his hind legs, the tip of his nose reaches the level of his partner's neck. Both man and beast are flat-bellied and broad-shouldered and muscular. Stevens, 46, has thick black hair that he wears combed straight back from his forehead, while the five-year-old dog is a warm tawny color, except for his face. There the fur darkens, and parts of his ears and muzzle match Stevens's patrol uniform in its blackness. The two look color-coordinated.
While Morris spent the first two years of his life in Holland, Stevens is a local. He grew up in Spring Valley, the offspring of an SDPD homicide detective. Because the son "couldn't stand school," he says his father talked him into applying for the police academy. "I figured, well, I'll go ahead just to get him off my ass," the younger Stevens says. "I kind of figured I'd do it for a couple years. Get it out of my system." But he liked the work and had a natural aptitude for it. Today there are some who say he's one of the best patrolmen in the city. "He's been in lots of gun battles and won them all," one of his peers told me with admiration. "And he has a knowledge of the area that he works in that's far above and beyond that of a normal cop. He knows everybody who knows everybody. Dives right into things and really gets involved in what he's doing. It's cops like that that keep the criminal element stirred up. They can't settle in anywhere 'cause Jim's around the corner."
Stevens won acceptance into the canine unit in 1991 and was paired with a two-and-a-half-year-old workaholic German shepherd. "Zasko would let you pet him and kiss him and hug him and be all social with him," Stevens recalls, "but all he cared about was going to work and looking for bad guys." Although most of the city's police dogs retire from their duties between the ages of eight and nine, this dog so excelled at what he did and was in such superb condition that some of the officers in the Mid-City division drew up a petition urging that Stevens's canine partner be allowed to remain on the job for longer than normal. Stevens says Zasko was ten and a half when he finally stopped working, "the oldest working police dog in the city or county that I know of." On the last day of his career, he found a guy armed with a submachine gun hiding underneath a van, Stevens boasts. Zasko then settled into a carefree life at Stevens's home, but he developed serious skeletal problems. "I spent almost $10,000 trying to fix them," the policeman recalls. Toward the end, he had to use a beach towel as a sling to help the dog walk out to relieve himself. He says one night he went out to the dog's kennel and talked to him for about 15 minutes. "I told him, 'You know, if you want to go, buddy, you can go.'" The next morning when he went out to check on him, Zasko lay dead.
Stevens's next dog was another German shepherd, this one imported from Czechoslovakia. The policeman didn't like the dog's given name -- Aswan -- so he shortened it to Juan, an easy change because the sounds were so similar. Juan also loved going to work, Stevens says, but unlike Zasko, "He wanted to be petted. He wanted his belly scratched. He wanted to lick me and play." Juan had four years on the job, and now, at 11, continues to thrive in retirement, according to his master.