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UND Police Department’s first K-9 unit will sniff out drugs

Officer Ben sniffs out drugs hidden under the hood of a car during a demonstration at UND as his handler, Officer Jose Solis works with the yellow labrador retriever. is handler, Officer Ben and officer Jose Solis make up the UPD’s first K9 unit. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Officer Ben, a 2-year-old yellow labrador retriever, and his handler, Officer Jose Solis, make up the UPD’s first K9 unit. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

When Officer Ben jumps out of a UND police car, his tail is wagging, and he’s ready for action.

The 2-year-old yellow Labrador is UND’s first K-9 unit, and he was all business Monday afternoon during a training exercise where an officer hid a large bag of marijuana in the hood of a vehicle.

“Good boy!” Officer Jose Solis said as Ben’s nose led him right to the stash. “You’re a good boy!”

Sgt. Danny Weigel, UND’s sergeant of investigations and the K-9-unit coordinator, said Ben will be used during routine traffic stops and in residence hall checks whenever necessary. City police officers will also be able to request his assistance.

“We don’t want to put the pressure on students to say we’re walking through every single day because that’s not the point of it,” Weigel said. “But if we do, for instance, get calls that it smells like marijuana, we’ll use them when they’re requested.”

A nose for crime

The UND Police Department has been interested in a K-9 unit for a while now, and once the Association of Residence Halls agreed to fund the venture, it was only a matter of finding the right pooch.

Enter Ben.

After being born near Fargo, Ben trained at a center in northern Iowa before being purchased for about $7,500 by the university a few weeks ago.

“The Residence Halls funded the initial purchase, but our department will pay for Ben’s ongoing expenses,” Weigel said.

Yellow Labs are better at tracking and sniffing instead of physically taking down targets like a German shepherd would.

Ben will live and work with the Solis family every day, but Solis said it’s important to keep training in the forefront right now. The two plan to continue training for 10 hours each week.

“When he’s home it’s time to relax but he can’t become too much of a family pet because then he’ll lose his drive to want to search,” he said. “It’s tricky trying to balance it out.”

But with a 15-month-old daughter at home, Solis admitted that can be difficult.

“(Ben) has a kennel inside that he sleeps in and she was being quiet. ... I peeked around the corner found her on the floor petting him, not even talking, just petting him,” he said.

Privacy issues

UND students will still have their right to privacy with Ben patrolling campus.

Weigel said houses and dorms guarantee students the most privacy and that even if Ben points to the presence of an illegal substance, officers still need to obtain a warrant before entering the premise.

Vehicles, on the other hand, offer substantially less privacy and an officer can search one if they have probable cause.

Weigel said Ben has also been training for the last few weeks to sniff out illegal substances that are much harder to find, such as LSD.

“A lot of people are happy to have him on campus and they love that we have that dog now,” Weigel said. “Overall it’s going to be great for the campus community.”

University police and the AHR plan to talk with stakeholders on campus once the school year starts to come up with an official nickname for Ben.

A swearing-in ceremony will also be held 2 p.m. Monday at the Chester Fritz Auditorium for Ben and two other officers recently hired by the department, UND spokesman David Dodds said.

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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