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St. Petersburg K-9 officer chases suspects, changes attitudes

St. Petersburg Officer Christopher Cooper, with partner Rocco, tries to remove the police dog stigma among African-Americans.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

St. Petersburg Officer Christopher Cooper, with partner Rocco, tries to remove the police dog stigma among African-Americans.

ST. PETERSBURG — They are some of the most haunting images of the civil rights movement: fire hoses and police dogs unleashed on African-Americans — including children — protesting segregation in Alabama in 1963.

Christopher A. Cooper never had to endure anything like that. But he remembers. He remembers the photos and television footage of police dogs used to intimidate and attack people like him.

"Growing up, looking at history, the way dogs were being used against black people," he said, "seeing it happen to the generation before mine, it just stuck with me."

So Cooper decided to do something about it. When the St. Petersburg Police Department wanted an African-American to join the K-9 unit 15 years ago, Cooper went for it. He won the job, beating out four other black officers after a grueling tryout.

Ever since, Cooper has tried to remove the stigma of police dogs among local African-Americans.

He and his canine partners also caught a lot of bad guys along the way.

• • •

Eugene "Bull" Connor was an irresolute white supremacist — and in Alabama, a powerful one.

When klan members attacked the Freedom Riders at a Birmingham bus station in 1961, Connor ordered police not to protect the civil rights activists.

As city commissioner, he controlled the police and fire departments. So when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights leaders came to Birmingham in 1963, it was Connor who ordered water hoses and police dogs be turned upon protestors — even on the young marchers of the Children's Crusade.

Images of dogs attacking African-Americans shocked the nation and handed the civil rights movement a huge victory, according to University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Raymond Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.

"After Connor used the dogs, even the most virulent white supremacist realized this was backfiring," Arsenault said. The photos of dogs attacking blacks became "the dominant image of what these people will do to maintain white supremacy," he said.

St. Petersburg police have never used police dogs for "crowd control," according to former police Chief Goliath Davis III, the city's first and only African-American police chief. But the protestors in Birmingham weren't the only ones left scarred.

"That whole incident gave people of color a very bad feeling about police dogs," Davis said.

• • •

Chris Cooper has always been a dog person. Growing up in St. Petersburg, he and his family always had pets — dogs, cats, mice. Cooper also grew up playing cops and robbers, his sister said.

"He was always the good guy," said Angela McKahand, 49.

After he got out of the Army, Cooper joined the St. Petersburg Police Department in 1991. Three years later, word came down that the department wanted to diversify the K-9 unit.

K-9 work is grueling. Officers aren't just getting a partner — they're getting a roommate. They get stuck with the worst shifts and toughest assignments. They're always in the field, always on the move, always on the hunt, always confronting danger.

There's a softer side to the job, too. K-9 officers and their partners often demonstrate their techniques for schoolchildren. Cooper saw that the way kids reacted to his dog often split along racial lines.

"You would notice a lot of times the black kids were not as comfortable around dogs as some of the white kids," he said. "They would be surprised at how friendly the dogs were.

"I've always socialized my dogs. I wanted to be able to show kids and the general public that even though they're police dogs, they're good dogs. They don't have to be mean and nasty."

• • •

But they can be nasty when they need to be. Take Rocco, the 4-year-old German shepherd Cooper now calls partner.

In four years together, Cooper and Rocco have become one of the department's best tandems at hunting and capturing suspects.

They're so good that Cooper and Rocco were awarded the department's 2009 Officer of the Year award Thursday by the St. Petersburg Exchange Club and the Charles A. Patterson and Odette W. Patterson Charitable Trust.

One of the feats that earned them the award was the January 2009 capture of a suspect accused of gunning down a detective.

The 18-year-old suspect had just robbed a convenience store when he shot an officer trying to arrest one of his accomplices, police said.

"Police! K-9! Stop!" Cooper ordered. The 18-year-old had already ditched his weapon, police said, and kept running.

So Cooper unleashed Rocco. The suspect tried to leap over the dog, only to have Rocco's jaws clamp down just below his right knee. The suspect hit the ground, and the dog held him down as he was handcuffed. The detective survived the shooting and is back on duty.

Following a dog on the trail of a dangerous suspect is risky work. In 2000, a suspect shot at Cooper but missed. In 2006, Polk sheriff's Deputy Matt Williams and his K-9, Diogi, were both shot dead by a suspect they were tracking.

And having an animal as a partner is hard.

Cooper was reprimanded in 1998 after his first K-9, Rocky, died of heat exhaustion in his yard. Cooper said he had caged Rocky because the dog often jumped over his 6-foot fence and escaped. Cooper said he left the dog with plenty of water, but it was gone when they found the dog dead.

His second partner, Scout, died of illness soon after he was retired at age 11. K-9s don't like retirement, Cooper said.

The 43-year-old father of two is still the city's only African-American K-9 officer. He accepts that risks come with the joys. He enjoys the chase as much as he does changing attitudes.

"I think over the years I've done a good job of letting people see K-9s in a different light," Cooper said. "K-9s don't have to be mean and nasty. They can be the friendliest of dogs.

"Or they can be the meanest, nastiest dogs."

St. Petersburg K-9 officer chases suspects, changes attitudes 04/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 2, 2010 12:26am]

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