K-9 Squad: keeping Colombo safe | Sunday Observer

K-9 Squad: keeping Colombo safe

The Police K-9 TEAM: Sergeant Bandara with dog Jude, Policewoman Lanka with Brownie, Constable Sanjeewa with detection dog Alexie, Asanka Silva with tracker dog Betka.
The Police K-9 TEAM: Sergeant Bandara with dog Jude, Policewoman Lanka with Brownie, Constable Sanjeewa with detection dog Alexie, Asanka Silva with tracker dog Betka.

In the aftermath of Black Sunday a cloud of uncertainty has settled in the city of Colombo. The armed forces and police tightened security as cordon and search operations commenced and were carried out around the clock. Unknown to most of the city folk, a team of four vibrant cops have faithfully worked day and night with their trained dogs - to detect and prevent any possible explosive threat.

I caught up with this team at their operations branch at a location in Colombo 2. A friendly cocker spaniel came out to greet me, wagging its tail. I reached over and patted its head and the dog was soon seated at my feet, as its handler Woman Police Constable (WPC) Lanka Wickremage offered me a chair.

WPC Lanka is one of the few women serving in the Police Kennels Division, headquartered at Asgiriya, Kandy. In keeping with her first name she is a patriot in every sense of the word. She explained, “My parents were both in the police force, and held the rank of Sergeant. My home town is Kuliyapitiya. As a child I was always living in police barracks and got used to dogs. After completing school I enlisted in the police in 2008. Last year I joined the Police Kennels. It is an exciting and rewarding career. My dog is Brownie. We work as a team to find out concealed explosives, in every form. Brownie has a friendly disposition, which is good because we always work in public places. Children pet him, because he is a gentle dog. During the past week we have been on duty at the Fort Railway Station, Colombo, from where thousands of people enter the city. We also monitored passengers at the Pettah Bus Terminus, another venue teeming with people.”

Lanka Wickremage is married to a police officer attached to the Peliyagoda station, and they have a three year old son.

There was a sharp bark and a Belgian Malinois dog came around the trees with its handler following closely. Instinctively the dog headed directly towards me, sniffed my black diary and sat down with a piercing gaze. Alexie is a direct import from the Netherlands. This eight-year-old robust dog, made headline news when it detected a large box of concealed swords in a place of worship, a few days ago.

Police Constable Sanjeewa, the dog’s handler explained, “Alexie is an intelligent dog. Its routine duty is to search buildings and vehicles for explosives. We were summoned to a place of worship, where a police team was already conducting a search. A sealed brown box had been found. The dog’s body language told me there was something suspicious. When we broke open the box we were surprised to find about 40 swords”. Constable Sanjeewa has spent eight years in the kennels and is a resident of Kandy. He added, “We work to support other search teams - of policemen and soldiers.

Over the past week Alexie and I have searched many hotels, high rise towers, banks and large car parks. When the dog finds something suspicious its body language would indicate the threat of hidden explosives”. A yellow truck then approached the compound and stopped at the barrier. At a single verbal command from its handler Alexie sprinted to the truck, did a sniffing routine and then jumped four feet up to climb the truck and search inside. What a spectacular display of discipline and work ethics.

The Police Kennels Division has performed a silent service to the nation, working behind the scenes and avoiding media spotlight. Its present director is Superintendent of Police, Lal Seneviratne, a veteran dog trainer with much experience. He said, “We are glad to be part of the broader security network at this important time. Our capable teams are deployed at key locations across the island. We have made many detections and averted disaster saving the lives of innocent civilians.”

Those aspiring to serve in the K-9 units must first undergo basic police recruit training. After working for a few years, in keeping with the internal kennels requirements policemen and policewomen can apply to join as dog handlers. They must display a genuine love for dogs, and also have the stamina to work in an assortment of terrain. The dogs from different breeds include German Shepherds, Labradors, Belgian Shepherds, Rottweiler’s, Golden Retrievers, Great Danes, Malamute, Terriers, Spaniels and Mastiffs. The mastiff is a large dog and is trained as a guard dog. Its duty is unique as it will propel itself without any fear into the direct line of gunfire.

A black and white English Spaniel demanded our attention as he ran around and returned with a tiny plastic bottle in his mouth. Police canine Jude belongs to Sergeant Y.M.T. Bandara, the officer in charge of this branch.

Sergeant Bandara is a police veteran with 27 years of service, specializing in narcotics detection. He has worked with three police dogs. It was one of his dogs that first detected the decapitated body of a woman packed inside a suitcase many years ago. Jude, his present dog had just returned from the Central Mail Exchange (Postal Service) where the duo had finished checking hundreds of large parcel post envelopes and boxes.

Sergeant Bandara said, “Jude is an active dog with a keen sense of smell. The four dogs in my squad begin their day by 7 am. Each handler must check his/her dog. In the police kennels each dog responds to and works with one handler in its entire service life thereby developing a strong bond with the handler. We feel they are part of our family. After a brief period of exercise we feed them milk and bread.

We groom the dogs, checking their skin condition. At times the heat is intense, yet they work standing at check points to protect this city. In the evening we feed the dogs with beef, vegetables and rice.” Jude kept moving around and then went towards the large patch of grass to spread himself out and rest.

The fourth man in the team is Asanka Silva and his dog Betka. The large black dog has the text book visual of a police canine - an aggressive look, deep bark and muscular build. Unlike his canine friends, Betka kept his distance.

When Constable Silva called him he came close and looked at me and then stood still. His handler explained, “Betka is 8 years old, and has a unique duty in this team.

He is an expert tracker, with much stamina and speed. Betka when ordered would give chase to a suspected terrorist or an identified suicide bomber. The dog has no fear. We join in support of the other handlers, as Betka maintains the security of the K-9 team. We don’t carry weapons, the dog is our defence. If I give the order it will engage, subdue and control a suspect until the police arrive and handcuff the person”. Sergeant Bandara requested the public to be vigilant of parcels and bags in crowded environments. This enthusiastic police team takes pride in their work.

After taking a few photographs the handlers and their dogs were ready for their next deployment in the city.