Kalispell’s drug crime has a new arch enemy — a team of two armed with six legs and one powerful nose.
Kalispell Police Officer Jason Parce, 35, and his newly certified drug-detection dog, Cairo, hit the streets this weekend as Flathead Valley’s first K-9 unit.
“You’re seeing the beginning of a really good partnership for the community,” Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset told a crowd gathered in the basement of Sykes Diner on Friday to meet the dog.
Specifically trained to sniff out everything from marijuana to meth, Cairo, an 18-month-old Belgian Malinois/shepherd cross, will aid the police department in searching schools, vehicles, packages and other properties for drugs.
Once Parce gave the “find dugs” command, the room quieted as onlookers watched Cairo search for drug samples hidden around the room.
In under a minute, the dog had found both samples and was rewarded with his favorite toy, a gnarled red ball on a rope.
The same drive that led Dale Branderberry, Cairo’s trainer, to choose him also made it difficult to pry the toy away from the dog.
Branderberry said Cairo could be hot, dehydrated and exhausted. However, if he was to set a bucket of water beside the dog and throw the ball, Cairo would retrieve the ball first, drop it in his water bucket, drink and then pick the ball back up.
“He’s that driven,” Branderberry said.
According to Branderberry, the dog’s agility, social attitude, drive and endurance led him to his new position.
Nasset said that when starting the K-9 program, he and other local authorities had to decide what problems most affected Kalispell. They quickly agreed on drugs.
Then, once the dog and its purpose had been chosen, Nasset had to find a qualified handler.
Out of the department’s 40 officers, three applied for the position. Out of those three, Parce was chosen.
Nasset said he chose Parce because of his involvement in the community, his 11 years of experience in law enforcement, his award-winning performance and drive that won him Montana Police Officer of the Year in 2012, and his lifelong love of dogs.
The dog-and-officer team spent the last three weeks training together for their final test last week.
From now on, the two will be inseparable. Cairo will not only work with Parce on his shifts, he will go home with him at the end of every day.
“They’re a team,” Nasset said, “and it takes both of them to be a team.”
Parce said he has undergone as much if not more training than Cairo to prepare for his new position.
“I learn more from him than he’ll ever learn from me,” Parce said.
Kalispell schools, as well as those in neighboring communities, will now be able to request their services, from presentations to drug searches.
The team will also search houses, vehicles and other buildings when officers suspect the presence of drugs but do not have enough proof to get a warrant to seize and search for them.
“There are several instances where I might suspect or know something is going on, but I have to let the person go because it’s their right,” Parce said. “The dog just puts it over the top for us and gives us that probable cause.”
The overall goal of the team, according to Parce, is to “slow or infiltrate the flow of drugs into the valley.”
Parce said he was warned that as people come to know he and Cairo are out with this purpose, there is a potential for people to see the team as a threat.
“Yeah, we could be a target, and that’s just the way it is,” Parce said.
For now, however, Parce said his goal is building relationships and breaking down barriers between his team and the community.
“Just having the dog with me I’ve seen so many more people who are willing to come and communicate with me just because the dog is there,” Parce said.
He smiled at his dog curled up asleep beside him.
“We’re going to be busy.”