GREENFIELD — Proceeds from drug busts along Interstate 70 have funded the purchase of a new police dog that will make officers even more effective at identifying traffickers.
Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Nick Ernstes, one of several area officers with special training for spotting traffickers, now has a new partner with a real nose for the work.
Mani, a 2-year-old specially trained English Springer spaniel, will now join Ernstes on patrols along I-70, which law enforcement officers say is a major thoroughfare for drug traffickers traveling across the county.
They’ll work together as part of the Proactive Criminal Enforcement team, a multi-agency task force whose officers are trained to spot driving behaviors consistent with drug trafficking. The four-officer P.A.C.E. team, which is made up of officers from Hancock, Henry and Wayne counties, is based in Henry County and focuses its efforts on I-70 between Indianapolis and the Ohio line.
The P.A.C.E. team originated as a pet project of former Sheriff Bud Gray, who started several initiatives to combat drugs in the county during his term as sheriff. The P.A.C.E. team began in 2009.
Since then, the team has intercepted hundreds of pounds of drugs that were en route to be distributed. Those include more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana; 100 pounds of cocaine and 75 pounds heroin, according to a news release.
The team also frequently seizes currency believed to be the illegal proceeds of the drug trade. Since the team’s inception, it has seized nearly $2 million from suspected drug-traffickers and also recovered more than $300,000 worth of stolen property, the release states.
“They’re doing a fantastic job,” Sheriff Mike Shepherd said. “They’re getting (traffickers) both ways – they’re getting their drugs and their money.”
Shepherd said he’s heard comments over the years from drivers who have noticed the team’s presence on the interstate.
Aside from the team’s work targeting traffickers, just having them visible on the interstate can have a positive effect on motorists’ driving habits, Shepherd said.
The team got its start with the help of grant dollars and local funding, but it has since become entirely self-sustaining. The officers’ salaries are paid with drug money seized from traffickers and the proceeds of items that are sold because of their connection to illegal activity.
Mani, whose total cost was $5,500, was also funded by drug proceeds.
“I have wanted to do this type of work, be a K9 handler, for several years,” Ernstes said. “I felt like this would be a good opportunity at no expense to the taxpayers.”
Mani has been in training for six weeks at a facility in Carmel, and Ernstes began a one-week training with the dog Monday.
The pair is working together on vehicle and area searches, handler/dog interaction and first aid, among other things.
For the most part, the dogs are ready to go by the time their handlers arrive, Ernstes said.
“He’ll be training me,” Ernstes said.
Mani will be the third dog to join the four-officer team.
Ernstes said having a specially trained police dog will come in handy not just for P.A.C.E. team operations but any time a narcotics dog is needed locally.
Ernstes and Mani will be put on an on-call rotation along with other police dogs as soon as the pair’s training is complete, Ernstes said.