CAMDEN — Three months have passed since Camden County police Lt. Zsakhiem James' partner in fighting crime died suddenly in his sleep, but James still never goes anywhere without him.
"I know he looks over me every day. Every day we come to work together, I still carry him," said James as he lifted a gold necklace containing K9 officer Zero's ashes from underneath his white shirt collar. "He will always be with me."
Zero's legacy — which includes setting a New Jersey state record of the most apprehensions for a K9 officer with 68 by the time he retired at age 12 — will now continue as officers, the department's K9 unit and officials gathered at the department's administration building Friday afternoon to introduce Zero's replacement, K9 officer Recon.
The department was able to bring the 15-month-old German Shepherd on board thanks to a $10,000 check from Verizon, the second time the company has footed the bill for a new K9 after it donated the funds necessary to bring K9 Fios on in 2014.
"I know how deeply [Zero's] loss has been felt in the department and the community," said Gina LaPlaca, the N.J. director of state government affairs for Verizon. "But it's comforting to know his legacy will live on through the introduction of new recruits like Recon."
A robust K9 department is crucial to the over all mission of the county-run police department, said Chief Scott Thomson, who referenced an old adage in law enforcement to underline his point.
"There's a saying in policing, when the public needs help, they call 911. When police need help, they call K9s," said Thomson.
Beyond K9s' ability to prevent an escalation of force, track down potential explosives and locate suspects on the loose, Thomson said their core value is the bridges they help build between officers and the public they serve.
"The most valuable return we get from our K9s is the investment that we've been able to make in community policing, most particularly in being able to connect with the children in the community," said Thomson. "The staple of a K9 officer's daily activity is interacting with the children of this city."
Officials said they know Recon will have some big shoes, or paws, to fill given Zero's record-setting ways, but his handler, Officer Will Ramos, said that after just three weeks of training so far, it seems like his new partner is up to the task.
"I'm just eager to be on the street and prevent any crimes I can," said Ramos as Recon enjoyed the attention of U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, also on hand for the check presentation. "He's a sweetheart. But I'm sure he won't be as sweet with a bad guy."