If you live in North Riverside or Brookfield, you may have bumped into a pair of new police officers. They don’t say a lot, but they make an impression when they walk into a room.
That’s because both are German shepherds, the canine half of new K-9 patrol units just initiated by each village.
“This is one of the reasons I got into law enforcement,” said Officer Ed Weissgerber, an 11-year veteran of the Brookfield Police Department who hit the streets with his dog, Sire, in mid-November.
Weissgerber’s love of animals, and dogs in particular, can be traced to his high school and college years when he worked in veterinary clinics that boarded and treated dogs, including police K-9 dogs.
“I like helping people and using animals to help people, so this is kind of the perfect job,” said Weissgerber, who was chosen the department’s K-9 officer after an interview process earlier this fall.
While Brookfield had never before had a K-9 unit — and frankly never really had such a unit on the radar — the opportunity came out of the blue this summer, when the president of the Brookfield Kiwanis Club offered to donate $75,000 to the police department to create the K-9 unit.
It would be the club’s lasting legacy to police and the final act of the century-old fraternal organization, which has dissolved.
“We wanted to do something for the village itself,” Brookfield Kiwanis Club President Joy Klang said in September.
The North Riverside Village Board, meanwhile, earmarked funds in its annual operating budget to bring a K-9 unit to the village’s police department.
While Weissgerber’s family has always owned dogs, and he’s spent countless hours with them in clinics, it’s a different story for North Riverside Officer Ted Roberson, who has always been more of a cat guy.
“This is my first dog,” said Roberson, who has served as a North Riverside police officer for six years after serving as a military police officer for nine years in the U.S. Army Reserve, including a 2011 tour in Afghanistan.
But Roberson has always liked dogs, and his wife, Riverside police officer Tammy Roberson, grew up in a household that owned dogs. Through the years, he’s interacted with K-9 officers and their dogs and began advocating for a local unit to his command staff.
“I’ve always wanted to be a K-9 officer,” said Roberson, who also graduated from his training program, along with his dog, Gunner, in mid-November.
The training for the dogs and their new handlers is intense. Both men spent six to seven weeks away from their families — Roberson in Ohio and Weissgerber in Pennsylvania — coming home on weekends when they could.
And that initial training is just the tip of the iceberg. Now that they’re home, both the North Riverside and Brookfield units formally train together, and the training continues, informally, on a daily basis. K-9 units are required to train 16 hours each month.
“Regularly at work you conduct training with the dog because you want the dog at top caliber,” Roberson said.
Both Sire and Gunner hail from the same part of the globe. Sire was born in the Czech Republic while Gunner was born in Slovakia. Most police dogs in the United States are imported from Europe because they’re bred to be working dogs.
As a result, the dogs also respond to commands in languages other than English. Weissgerber’s commands are in Dutch while Roberson communicates to Gunner in Czech. According to Weissgerber, that’s typical. German is also widely used for communicating with service dogs, said Weissgerber.
One reason for that, said Roberson, is to avoid confusion on the dog’s part.
“The language is so different from English that I know when I give my dog a command, he won’t misinterpret what I’m saying,” Roberson said.
Both dogs are also trained to perform similar tasks, including drug detection (for cannabis, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine), tracking people, and searching for articles.
So far the K-9 units have been involved in some suspect searches — Weissgerber and Sire recently were called out to search the area near Leo’s Liquors at Eight Corners after it was robbed — and searches for narcotics during traffic stops.
When on duty, both Roberson and Weissgerber will perform their regular patrol duties, though they are also on 24-hour call since K-9 units are not very numerous in the area.
When off duty, Sire and Gunner go home with their police handlers, though they aren’t treated as family pets. The dogs spend a lot of their down time in their kennels.
“It’s not a house pet,” Weissgerber said. “You need to treat them a bit differently. My dogs at home have bad habits, and I don’t want [Sire] to pick up those bad habits.”
Meanwhile, Gunner and Roberson’s cat have agreed to tolerate one another.
“The cat doesn’t like it, but they get along,” Roberson said.
The dog handlers and their colleagues at each police department are still getting used to having the K-9 unit as a resource and are still learning exactly how to deploy them.
“[Gunner] is a very social dog, so I try to keep him around people,” Roberson said. “We’re learning how to integrate the unit in North Riverside, and the guys are interested in how to use the dog, carrying into daily operations.”
For Weissgerber, every day is a learning experience.
“It’s exciting to watch him work,” he said. “I’m amazed at what he’s able to do.”