TAMPA — They are a family within a family.
The St. Petersburg Police Department canine unit works together and trains together. Bonding is in their job description. Officers must bond with their canine partners to become teams. Working so closely, the officers also bond with each other.
It doesn't stop when they're off the clock. They hang out, and so do their families. They kayak and fish and hold cookouts together.
Now they grieve together.
A member of their unit, Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, was killed in the line of duty on Jan. 24 along with Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger.
"We consider Jeff to be one of our brothers," said Sgt. Dave Barr, who commands the 11-man unit. "It's like losing a brother."
The canine family was together again at the Florida State Fair on Thursday, putting on an annual demonstration for the crowd, something it has done for more than 20 years.
This was supposed to be Yaslowitz's first year to show what he and his partner, Ace, could do.
Instead, the officer's father, Harvey Yaslowitz, and sister, Stephanie Barnes, came to spend time with Jeff Yaslowitz's other family.
"It's therapeutic for me to get out and mingle with Jeff's team," the father said. "It's important for me to show support for them and the important work that they're doing."
The best therapy for the officers has been staying busy. Officers and spouses from the entire department have volunteered to help the fallen officers' families.
"The busier you are," Barr said, "the less time you have to dwell on it."
When they're not working, the canine unit helps their comrade's wife, Lorraine Yaslowitz, and their three children. They also bring by Ace to play with the kids. Eventually, when the family is ready, Ace will rejoin them.
"I joke that I have 12 or 13 husbands because the whole canine unit is with me," Lorraine Yaslowitz said this week.
"We're more like uncles," Barr said.
The officers are there if she needs someone to lean on. But sometimes, canine Officer Jeremy Krzysiak said, it seems like the other way around.
"We're supposed to be helping her," he said. "But sometimes she's helping us get through it."
The unit put on three shows at the fairgrounds, demonstrating the dogs' obedience, how easily they can sniff out hidden objects, and how they take down a fleeing suspect. The suspect in each demonstration was Officer Todd Hancock, who apparently drew a very short straw.
"It rejuvenates my spirits … to see his fellow officers in their demonstrations," Harvey Yaslowitz said, "showing me what Jeff was doing day to day."
Jeff Yaslowitz was in the unit for two years, most of it in training. His first dog, Shadow, didn't pass the 16-week training course (he couldn't handle loud sounds, like gunfire). Yaslowitz retook the grueling course with Ace.
"He loved what he was doing," his father said. "The day he joined the police force, in the back of his mind, he was joining the canine unit."
The Yaslowitz family will always be a part of the canine unit family, Barr said, and their fallen comrade will never be far from the officers' thoughts.
"You don't ever really get over it," he said. "But you do have to let time pass and accept it."