Harker Heights Police Department K-9 Officer Chris Villella and his canine partner Era joined dozens of law enforcement officers March 2 to search for drugs in the Leon Godchaux Jr. School gymnasium in LaPlace, La.

“There was heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines,” Villella said. “They were hidden in everything from typewriters, filing cabinets, computers, desks and a fire hose.”

The exercise was part of the inaugural Jeremy Triche Narcotics Competition, which honored a St. John the Baptist Sheriff’s Office deputy who was ambushed, shot and killed last August while searching for suspects who shot and injured a fellow officer.

More than 60 teams of officers and dogs from police departments in Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana participated in the event. Villella and Era, a Belgian Malinois, who have been with the Heights K-9 unit for seven years, took home first place in the Fastest Find contest and were recognized for traveling the farthest distance to the March competition.

On April 19, the team will head to Laredo for the 2013 NDAA National Training Conference.

Lots of training

Preparing for the competitions is all part of his job, Villella said. Training involves everything from apprehension, tracking and article recovery to building searches and narcotics.

“We train 10 hours a week every week,” he said. “We try to make it as ‘real world’ as possible.”

Villella said it was an honor to be part of the Louisiana competition, as Triche was also a good friend of the Heights unit. Triche’s death was a rough time for the hundreds of officers who knew him, said Gabrielle Guerra, K-9 handler for the Heights police department.

“K-9 is a small world,” she said. “It just so happened that (Triche’s) captain was on the board with me for the (National Narcotic Detector Dog Association), and we were pretty close since we trained together and went to the same schools.”

Guerra has been with the K-9 unit for 11 years and works with her German shepherd on the growing criminal cases in Heights.

“Over the last 10 years, crime has changed and we have found that there is a need for our dogs,” she said. “We do tracking with narcotics more than anything, and we are responding to different types of calls when they are violent, and we deploy a lot more to subjects in a heated situation.”

K-9 officers build a strong familial bond with their dogs. “I think anytime we send out dogs into a really high risk situation, we have to learn to disassociate ourselves from them because emotionally we can pull them out of the situation without even realizing that we are doing it.”

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