Intern Takes a Bite Out of Crime at Houston's K-9 Unit

Intern Andrea Marmorato with Gunner.
Intern Andrea Marmorato with Gunner.

After graduating from the Houston Police Department Citizen Academy, Andrea Marmorato set her sights on an internship with the department’s K-9 Unit Program.

“I graduated from the Houston Citizen Academy two years ago,” said Marmorato. “We got to see SWAT, Mounted Patrol, and the helicopter unit called FOX, but the K-9 Unit Program, that was my favorite.”

During the summer, Marmorato worked side-by-side with K-9 units during training and actual operations in the field, sometimes serving as the “decoy” for the dogs to find. She also donned the bite sleeve and took a hit from the powerful jaws, but never once experienced fear.

“I can’t say I was ever scared,” said Marmorato. “I trusted my officers and the dogs that they would not put me in jeopardy.”

One of the canine from the Houston Police Department. Courtesy of the Houston Police Department.
Courtesy of the Houston Police Department.
Sgt. Andy Porras said the K-9 Unit Program is a good place for interns to train because they get to work throughout the city, and they get to ride along with officers on calls.

“Coming to K-9, they get a more well-rounded experience,” said Porras. “They see what we do with the dogs in training, and they can ride with the officers and see how we interact with other departments. We are a support unit, often called in when a suspect runs from officers, like during the burglary of a building. K-9 provides the feeling of what is involved in a police officer’s work throughout the entire city.”

Marmorato shadowed K-9 officers during all shifts, watching newly paired teams train and going on calls to help track suspects in the field – often in wooded areas.

Hero and Marmorato prepare to hit the street.Hero and Marmorato prepare to hit the street.“Most of the calls were burglary and theft where the suspects run,” Marmorato. “Police set up a perimeter and call up K-9 and Fox (helicopter). If the suspect is there, we will find them. It never ceases to amaze me. A suspect may have 10 officers with weapons pointed at them and they won’t surrender. But the moment they see the dog, they give up.”

There are 10 to 15 K-9 teams at the Houston Police Department, trained in various specialties, including drugs, bombs, SWAT and patrol. The department mainly uses German Shepherds and Belgium Malinois, each which requires 500 hours of training.

Marmorato witnessed two new teams in training, which included obedience, obstacles, shooting and tracking.

“A lot of them are puppies, and they just want to play,” said Marmorato. “They are great dogs at home. But when they get to work, they know what their job is. If there is a suspect, they will find them.”

Marmorato gears up to go in the field on a call.
Marmorato gears up to go in the field on a call.
Marmorato got to play the suspect in several scenarios. At the old police property room, a large warehouse filled with cages and dark corners, she hid in the dark in the expansive venue, back press against the wall under a piece of plywood. In the heat, she began to sweat, a scent the dog can find in closed building. After a sweep of the building, the dog came to the area, barking and pawing at the cage, indicating a find.

“They searched the whole building,” Marmorato said. “Where there is one suspect, there could be two. Where there is two, it might be three.”

Because of the open air and winds, outside the dogs track using the scent of broken grass and vegetation. Dogs frequently will throw their nose in the air to pick up the trail and then put their head to the ground to follow it.
During training, the reward for the dog is to let them bite the decoy wearing the bite sleeve. Marmorato took one of those bites, which she described as “other than the dog tugging, you don’t feel anything else.”

Marmorato dons the vest used by the K-9 unit.
Marmorato dons the vest used by the K-9 unit.
On several calls, she also got to traipse through the woods in pursuit of suspects.

“I got poison ivy twice,” Marmorato said. “I found out my boots were not waterproof. I wore long tactical pants, which were really hot, but after walking through tall grass, I was thankful for the pants that made me sweat. I didn’t know if there were snakes and spiders out there. I’m kind of a girl that way.”

Sgt. Porras said that Marmorato has what it takes to be a good police officer. He said Houston officers can only join the K-9 unit, or other specialties after like homicide or SWAT, after five years on the streets.

“She’s very intelligent, and she has good sense in evaluating people,” said Sgt. Porras. “She is a well-rounded individual and she would make an excellent police officer.”
Marmorato said she plans to return to school to pursue her Master’s degree.

Mamorato worked beside K-9 teams in training.
Mamorato worked beside K-9 teams in training.
“It was a pretty amazing experience,” said Marmorato. “I learned patience. But to hear the calls coming in, it made me pretty emotional, like with the domestic violence calls. They get to you. There is not much you can do, even after you are called to the house three to four times and they are still getting beaten. You can’t make the victim leave.”

Marmorato also got frustrated by the public’s failure to yield to police officers with sirens. There were days when they missed suspects because of the delays.

“When you hear lights and siren, pull out of the way,” Marmorato said. “Don’t slam on your brakes; that causes accidents. It’s hard to get to a call safely when people won’t get out of the way. People’s lives are in danger.”

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