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Gustine's newest cop has a nose for drug trouble

GUSTINE -- By mid-April, there will be a new member of the Gustine Police Department, one expected to make a major impact on illegal narcotics in this Westside community. But it won't swell the department's payroll.

The new employee is Meeka, a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever that is winding up her training to become the police force's first drug dog in a number of years. Her handler, officer Ricky Stice, is excited about the new canine partnership and its potential to cut down on illicit drugs.

Community residents and businesses have donated more than $1,500 to set up the police dog program, Stice said. Meeka will be the first drug dog in western Merced County and partnerships are envisioned with other law enforcement agencies.

"The dog has no idea what it does in life," Stice said. "It's having fun while serving a great purpose in the community. The drug problem is surfacing more and officers are getting more narcotics calls."

Sgt. Devon Stavrowsky, acting Gustine police chief, said Meeka's arrival portends a major advantage for the city of Gustine. Narcotics are involved in 95 percent of the crimes and once word gets out that police have a drug dog, the number of crimes will go down.

"This is far and away the greatest return on our investment," Stavrowsky said. He said the police department is looking at collaborative mutual-aid efforts with Newman police involving the police dog.

Stice, 24, has been a Gustine police officer for two years. He loves the small-town environment and said local residents are more polite and friendly than in bigger cities.

Meeka, raised by Stice's parents and brother since it was 8 weeks old, is enthusiastic and friendly. Merced County Sheriff's deputy Mark Taylor donated Meeka's training and said she will be a very good narcotics dog. He has been training police dogs for 13 years.

"She's smart and good at what she does," Taylor said. "She will do great. She's quick and knows all the drug odors." Meeka and Stice must be certified with the California Narcotics Canine Association. The dog has learned to detect methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and marijuana.

Stice said he has always been a dog lover. Growing up in Oakdale, he had a golden retriever, three coon hounds and a black Lab since he was 4. Meeka joins Peaches, the basset hound, in the Stice household.

"I'm a huge dog person," Stice said. "If I had my way, I would have 10 dogs and a kennel. They are the most loyal companions you could ever find. I'd love to be involved in training dogs years down the road."

Meeka gets her name from a legendary police dog back East that had considerable success in locating dangerous drugs. Since puppyhood, the dog has delighted playing with balls and other toys. This canine zeal for toys has been incorporated into her drug training, Stice explained.

Stice said he expects the dog will be used as a friendly outreach at community events and celebrations, as well as demonstrations. She likely will be called upon to do drug sweeps at Gustine schools, and this will discourage students from bringing narcotics on campus.

Meeka will join Stice on most all traffic stops he makes. He expects to be on call around the clock and hopes the canine program lasts five to 10 years or more, with a second canine ultimately added to the force.

Stice said Gustine is in the middle of drug trafficking that revolves between Santa Nella, Los Banos, Newman and the San Francisco Bay Area. Interstate 5 is only two miles away.

Meeka is a passive, alert dog. When she finds drugs, she sits nearby, waiting for someone to give her a reward, one of her toys. A dog's sense of smell is 50 to 100 times stronger than a human's, Stice explained.

The police department is in the midst of a fundraising drive to collect $1,845 for the canine program. Eventually, it hopes to acquire a police car specifically dedicated as a canine unit.

Last year, Gustine police officers handled 4,043 calls and a police dog could have been very beneficial in 1,950 of these cases. The dog can be used in drug searches, with asset seizures and forfeitures greatly benefiting the municipal treasury, according to the fact sheet on the proposed K-9 unit.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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