ST. PETERSBURG — Officer Chris Turbee was carrying 220 pounds on his 6-foot frame last January when he tried out for the canine unit.
The former college baseball player wasn't out of shape, but he underestimated how tough the tryout would be. Squeezing through pipes. Swimming through swamps with a dog at his side. Trekking through the woods at night.
Turbee didn't get picked. The canine officers consoled him. Officer Jeffrey "Yaz" Yaslowitz was particularly kind.
"Don't worry about it," Yaslowitz told him. "I didn't make it my first time either. You'll be fine."
Days later, Yaslowitz was dead, shot to death by a fugitive hiding in an attic. Early this year, the department said it would fill Yaslowitz's post.
Turbee didn't hesitate. The memory of his moment with Yaslowitz only made him want it more. "His words that night, if anything, maybe bolstered … my desire," said Turbee.
The 36-year-old went to work. He dropped 30 pounds for the January tryout. He drank more water and ate less junk food. He stepped up his exercise routine.
And late last month, he got his dog.
• • •
Turbee, who is married with a 17-year-old son, was born and raised in St. Petersburg.
There were two units Turbee wanted to be part of when he joined the Police Department 13 years ago.
He fulfilled his first goal — working as a detective in the Crime Analysis and Surveillance Enforcement, or CASE, unit — for the past eight years. The undercover unit hunts down wanted criminals.
He has been working on the second goal — becoming a canine officer — for only a few weeks.
Officials picked him out of a field of five candidates who went through a grueling daylong physical tryout and extensive interview process earlier this year.
"You're always in the thick of things," Turbee said of becoming a canine officer. "People call you to catch the bad guys. I have a passion for catching the bad guys."
But admission into the canine unit, considered one of the most elite divisions at the department, isn't easy and doesn't come often.
Sometimes years can pass before a vacancy opens up in the tight-knit, 12-officer group. The unit didn't rush to fill Yaslowitz's spot. They needed to grieve. They wanted to make sure they were ready to add another member.
"We knew … it was time," said Sgt. Dave Barr, who heads the unit.
Turbee admits it has been an emotional process adjusting to a role once held by a friend. He feels he has a lot to live up to.
"I feel pressure to fill Yaz's shoes," he said.
The two men knew each other from working the streets. Canine officers and their dogs frequently respond to many of CASE's high-risk operations.
"It's definitely a privilege and honor to be selected," Turbee said. "I hope I can just live up to half the things that he stood for."
• • •
Turbee said knew he had to work harder for this year's tryout. His evaluators noticed.
"Physically he was good," said Barr. "But he just seemed to be able to work with the dogs a lot better. It was almost an instinct kind of thing."
That day, the candidates had to show their handling skills with both trained and untrained dogs. As Turbee took a turn with canine Justice, a high-spirited Belgian Malinois, the dog began to nip at his legs. "Instead of freaking out, he corrected him quickly and kept going." Barr said. "The guys took notice."
In mid February, Turbee was assigned the department's newest police dog: a 16-month-old untrained German shepherd who answered to "Billy."
Turbee renamed him Jaeger, German for "hunter."
But when Turbee first came to take him home (canines live full time with their handlers), Jaeger didn't move. He has never been in a police cruiser before.
"I'm thinking, 'This isn't a good start,' " Turbee said, chuckling. "It took some coaxing to get him in the car."
The two began their 16-week canine school recently. Their bond now is obvious.
• • •
On a recent Wednesday, Turbee walked out of a small building at the canine training compound near Lake Maggiore. A large picture of Yaslowitz and his police dog Ace is emblazoned on the siding. Ace remains with Yaslowitz's family.
Turbee wore black cargo pants and a black T-shirt with the unit's logo on the back. The other officers gave him the shirt when he joined the unit. He looped a worn leash around his torso and tucked a black tug toy underneath his arm and got ready to start a 10-hour training session.
The toy is Jaeger's favorite. It's also his reward for learning how to do things like scaling a 6-foot wall, hunting for a suspect and taking that person down with his jaws.
Those things are a few weeks off. Right now Jaeger and Turbee are working on sit and heel.
"I have a newfound respect for what every canine officer has to do out there," Turbee said. "It takes a lot of patience. It's all a new experience for me."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.