CAMDEN – In addition to the usual background noise that comes with a news conference in Camden — the occasional siren, the sound of construction, a helicopter overhead — the one at county police headquarters Friday afternoon had a different soundtrack.
Panting. A lot of it.
And it wasn’t coming from the reporters, photographers, camera operators, police and politicians assembled in the small, slightly warm room.
It was coming from the five K-9 officers, including the Camden County Police Department’s newest addition, Recon, a 6-month-old German shepherd.
There was a sixth K-9 in the room as well, at least in spirit, as U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ) read a federal proclamation honoring Zero, a longtime Camden County Police K-9 who died in December.
“Recon has large paws to fill,” said Freeholder-Director Lou Cappelli, and indeed Zero was among the best in the state, making a record 68 apprehensions since joining the department in 2007.
Recon, whose 16 weeks of K-9 training and additional 10 weeks of either explosives or narcotics training is covered by a $10,000 donation from Verizon, sat patiently at the feet of his handler, Officer Will Ramos, as Norcross, Cappelli and Chief Scott Thomson spoke about Zero, his legacy and the importance of K-9s in one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the country.
The dogs aren’t just there to sniff out drugs and take down suspects, Thomson noted. Much of their value comes through outreach in the community they serve, particularly with schoolchildren.
“These dogs are tremendous facilitators and ambassadors of our organization,” Thomson said. Saying it was a “sad, sad day” when he received word of Zero’s death, Thomson spoke with a photo of the dog and his handler, Lt. Zsakhiem James, and an urn with Zero’s ashes, on a table beside him.
James, holding out a necklace with some of his late partner’s ashes, said Zero was “a partner who never had a bad day.”
He never complained about the radio. He never complained about the weather,” he said. “And when I was having a bad day, he was always there with a smile, a lick; he always wanted to play.
“I know I have a guardian angel; mine has two wings and four legs.”
Since Zero’s death, the department has leaned on another K-9, Major, for the bulk of its K-9 community outreach. County spokesman Dan Keashen said the department uses the most experienced dogs for those assignments.
Recon, still undergoing training, is “playful, but all business when it’s time to work,” said Ramos.
“He’s quiet and cute and lovable — until he isn’t,” Ramos added, laughing when a fellow officer quickly retorted, “Just like his handler.”
Ramos, a 17-year police veteran, said this was his first K-9 assignment. He was surprised not only at the amount of care his new partner requires — “It’s almost like taking care of a person,” he said — but at how smart the dog is and how well he’s responding to training.
“I can’t wait to get him out there in the community,” Ramos said as a reporter petted the grinning pup.
“Look at him. He’s a ham.”