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Four-legged recruit will sniff for drugs in Hillsborough jails

Bensha sits still for a few seconds and looks at Col. Jim Previtera. Her handler, Deputy Tim Bickerstaff, started his training with her last week.

Jessica Vander Velde | Times

Bensha sits still for a few seconds and looks at Col. Jim Previtera. Her handler, Deputy Tim Bickerstaff, started his training with her last week.

TAMPA — Inmates may be able to hide drugs from the jail staff, but it'll be a lot harder to get by Bensha. • Got marijuana? Crack? Opiates? The Sheriff Office's new four-legged employee will be able to sniff them out and alert deputies. • Bensha, a 14-month-old German shepherd, is the Hillsborough County jail system's first drug-sniffing dog. She was bred specifically for law enforcement work and flown in from the Netherlands.

After six to eight weeks of training, she'll be ready to work. She's already learned to sit, stay and heel, and she can detect marijuana.

"She's picking up everything really quickly," said her trainer, Master Deputy Gary Herman.

The Sheriff's Office already has a canine unit, but no dog works exclusively at the county's two jails, where there are usually at least 3,000 inmates at any given time. She'll also work at the courthouse.

Before Bensha, teams of deputies searched pods and cells, usually in reaction to a tip. That cost the Sheriff's Office employee hours and overtime, said Col. Jim Previtera, who's in charge of county jails.

Bensha will be faster. Her nose is super sensitive, and she's bounding with energy. "To her, it's a game," he said.

Bensha's arrival comes at a critical time. Hillsborough jails have been seeing an increasing amount of incoming drugs, Previtera said. In the past six months, deputies conducted about 10 pod searches.

Sometimes the drugs arrive in body cavities, he said. Strip searches aren't routinely conducted until a prisoner's first appearance before a judge, unless there's probable cause to suspect contraband. A metal detector finds hidden weapons but not drugs.

Drugs in jail are extremely valuable — about five to 10 times as much as on the streets, Previtera said.

Even small quantities can be particularly dangerous in jail, he said.

"If you start to have drugs, you start to have fights, and you start to have gangs," he said.

Also, an inmate under the influence might act much differently, which makes detention jobs difficult.

In addition to marijuana, Bensha will be trained to detect cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and opiates. She'll be able to search pods, cells, packages and mail.

Some day she might be trained to search people, but for now that's not the plan, Previtera said.

"Although if someone near her has drugs, she'll obviously smell it and alert deputies," he said.

Bensha is not the only student. Her handler, Deputy Tim Bickerstaff, is learning, too.

Bickerstaff, 33, was recently selected out of a pool of a dozen applicants. Before transferring, he was a bailiff at the Hillsborough County Circuit Court.

"I've always had dogs, and it's exciting to be working with one," he said.

He takes Bensha home with him after work, something his 3-year-old daughter, Addison, is excited about.

Bickerstaff said he feels pressure to succeed in the newly formed position. He hopes that one day, the Sheriff's Office will get more dogs for the jails and be able to start a small unit.

"It's exciting to pioneer something," he said.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

Four-legged recruit will sniff for drugs in Hillsborough jails 12/29/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 29, 2010 9:50pm]
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