Police K9s Trained to Sniff Out Devices: a Game Changer Catching Child Porn Offenders

August 20, 2020 Updated: August 20, 2020

Police dogs that have been trained to sniff out minuscule electronic devices are changing the face of police detection. By locating hidden electronics, these specialist K9s are unearthing evidence that could lead to convictions for a wide range of serious crimes, including child pornography.

One of these aptly named “electronic storage detection canines,” named Ice, works with the New Jersey State Police. The 4-year-old German shepherd and his partner, Slawek Stepien, have been widely credited in the news for their exemplary “sniffing out” skills.

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A police officer reviews computer data in conjunction with the legal act “Sledgehammer” against worldwide child pornography in Vienna, Austria, on March 13, 2009 (DIETER NAGL/AFP via Getty Images)

As recently as Feb. 7, Ice located a cell phone that 30-year-old Collingswood resident William Salcito claimed to have destroyed, containing child pornography that led to the suspect’s conviction. “It was exactly the stuff they were looking for,” Stepien told NJ.com. “It’s kind of incredible a dog can help you out.”

German shepherd Ice has earned his stripes. The dog, fresh out of training, helped identify 79 individuals in one fell swoop during the multi-agency nine-month-long Operation Safety Net investigation in 2017. All suspects went on to face child pornography charges.

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An NYPD Bomb Squad detective and K-9 Kobe inspect the inside of a vehicle parked suspiciously near Times Square, New York City, on Sept. 10, 2011. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It all began when Connecticut-based forensic chemist Jack Huball was approached by a police officer in 2012. The officer wanted to know whether sniffer dogs could be trained to detect hard drives, knowing that drives containing sensitive or illegal material are habitually stashed in obscure places; a K9 could help find them.

Huball identified the common denominator in all electronic storage devices: a circuit board. Months of laboratory testing allowed him to further identify two circuit board “smell compounds” that dogs could be trained to identify through positive reinforcement.

It worked.

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Amtrak Police K9 Lex patrols Penn Station in New York City on Sept. 9, 2011. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In 2015, former spokesperson for the Subway restaurant franchise, Jared Fogle, was arrested in a high-profile case after a Labrador named Bear found a hidden flash drive on Fogle’s property. Fogle was placed on the national sex offender registry for possession of child pornography, ABC News reported.

The Lab’s trainer, Todd Jordan of Jordan Detection K-9, extolled the many virtues of sniffer dogs in aiding police investigations. “They’ll do anything to please their trainers,” he said, adding that Bear was a homeless shelter dog in his life before law enforcement.

In March 2019, The Associated Press reported on another successful detection by a dog named Kimo from Blair County, Pennsylvania. Kimo and his handler, Keystone K-9 and Security owner James Walstrom, specialize in finding small concealed electronics such as flash drives and SD cards—even when they are not turned on.

Kimo sniffed out electronic evidence within a suspect’s wardrobe tightly packed with clothes, leading to a conviction. “I think he’s been exceptional,” Walstrom praised, “there’s at least some of those devices that wouldn’t have been found without Kimo’s assistance.”

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Members of the transit police K-9 unit pose at an American Kennel Club expo in New York City on Jan. 27, 2010 (DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)

A trained four-legged friend such as Ice, Bear, or Kimo can cost around $9,000 and requires approximately 140 hours of training. The companies that hire out these specialized dogs usually charge in the area of $250 per hour.

In 2019 alone, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline received a disturbing 16.9 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation. Using surveillance technology such as Child Protection System, developed in 2010 by Florida-based nonprofit Child Rescue Coalition, police can triage child pornography cases with increasing expertise.

Specialized dogs, then, have proven themselves able to bridge the gap between suspicions and convictions.

By locating evidence that previously eluded even the most expert human search teams, these vital canine components on the path to prosecution could mean serious jail time for purveyors of child pornography.

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