By four o'clock, we were prowling the streets of City Heights, looking for action. At one traffic light, Stevens pointed out how he tried to position the patrol car so Morris wouldn't have direct eye contact with other drivers and their passengers. As often as not, this ploy fails, as it did a moment later, when a passing taxi driver set the dog off. I found myself giggling at the extremeness of Morris's response -- the ear-shattering cacophony, the frenzied head-banging against the car's ceiling, the slavering lunges under the sloping rear window, dog fur flying, musky dog smell blossoming. "I'm more of a lion tamer than a dog handler," Stevens said, rolling his eyes.
It's such a caricature of canine ferocity, I was astonished to hear that Morris had not yet bitten anyone. "That's not unusual," Stevens said. "Our dogs don't have nearly as many bites now as they did, say, ten years ago." Zasko once got in two bites within a 48-hour period, Stevens says, but he believes that as a result of the three-strikes law, there aren't as many hard-core criminals on the streets. He adds, "To be quite honest with you, I would just as soon go through my entire career with this dog and never have him bite anybody. As long as he's finding people and working as an intimidator."
In mid-October, Morris finally had a chance to sink his teeth into a criminal. The incident unfolded after police had spotted a stolen Honda that led them on a high-speed pursuit, then crashed next to a canyon adjoining Friars Road. The driver bolted from the car and scrambled over a six-foot chain-link fence topped with three feet of barbed wire. Then he disappeared into the undergrowth. "We were going to cut the fence with bolt cutters," says Stevens, who had joined in the last ten minutes or so of the vehicular pursuit. "But one of the officers noticed a tear in the fence down a ways."
Stevens put his dog on a 30-foot lead, and the two of them squeezed through the hole. Then Stevens told Morris to track. "First thing he did was he ran right over to the fence where the guy had jumped over, and he stuck his head into a bush and pulled out the guy's tennis shoe. So I knew he was on the scent."
Urged to continue on, "Morris put his nose down and off he went," Stevens says. "The terrain was really difficult to maneuver because it was down a hill." In the inky darkness, the policeman says he put his trust in the dog, letting the animal tug him toward the bottom of the canyon. There Morris lifted his head and started to "cast high," an indication that he had caught the quarry's immediate odor. Stevens says, "He started pulling me up the hill in a slightly different direction." The policeman knew that no dog who was as tired as Morris was by then would choose to tug his handler back up the hill he had just run down unless he was onto something. So Stevens reiterated the warnings he'd been sounding since he entered the canyon. There was no response, so he made no effort to restrain Morris from diving into a large bush. "You couldn't shine a flashlight and see inside this thing. It was way deep." The next thing he heard was the voice of a man yelling that he'd been bitten.
Stevens says he ordered both the suspect and the dog to come out of the hiding spot. "Morris is kind of a big fellow, and he basically just dragged the guy out. The entire bicep/shoulder area was completely embedded in his mouth. The dog's molars were clamped down on the guy." Tattoos covered the man's skin, and the police soon learned that he was facing several felony warrants. "He'd been in and out of prison his whole life," Stevens says. "He was pretty desperate. He was looking at going back to prison for maybe ten years." Without the dog, the man's gamble to escape would have paid off, according to Stevens. "There was no way we ever would have found him, it was such a huge area." As for Morris, "Once he got back to the car, he was lying down and sleeping 15 minutes later. It was no big deal to him."
In the course of the shift that Stevens, Morris, and I spent together, we kept busy. We spent an hour at a house in Logan Heights where a suspected stalker and parole violator was thought to be holed up. When the man's parents showed up with keys to the front door, another dog handler who'd arrived first at the scene took her dog in to search the place. That turned up nothing, but a third (smaller) police dog was boosted into the attic and let down under the crawl space to make sure the quarry wasn't hidden there. (He wasn't.) We moved on and later, Stevens and Morris and I chanced upon a hit-and-run scene just minutes after the collision occurred, and we spent some time driving around in the hope of finding the perpetrator (a vain hope, as it developed). Stevens also wrote out a warning to a guy who'd made an illegal turn right in front of him. He stopped and chatted with two or three former and current gang members. "I get along with almost all these guys out here," the policeman commented. "I treat them right, even when I arrest them. And they appreciate that."
The most exciting call of the night turned out to be a burglar alarm up in Sorrento Valley. Stevens raced up the 805 at 90 miles an hour and pulled into the parking lot of an auto parts warehouse about a half hour after its alarm had first sounded. Two regular patrolmen were already on the scene, and one pointed out an open door at the side of the building. The question was: was an intruder inside? With Morris's leash in hand, Stevens entered, walked down a long, shadowy hall, and surveyed the rows of towering shelves that filled the building's vast interior. He issued the standard warning: "San Diego police! Come out or you will be bitten!" then released Morris. Now silent, Morris streaked off, his toenails clicking like castanets on the concrete flooring. We heard the clicks receding and growing louder again as the dog raced up and down the aisles. But no fierce barking signaled success, and after a few minutes, Stevens and his fellow officers concluded that if a burglar had broken into the building, he now was gone.