City's first cadaver-sniffing canine was 'one of the guys'

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Barked: Thu Mar 30, '06 11:23pm PST 
He was a highly decorated and proud member of the Philadelphia Police Department - with a black-and-rust furry coat that made him an unforgettable sight.

And he wore badge number K-527.

Azeem, the city's first cadaver-sniffing dog, died of natural causes about 2 p.m. Sunday in the home he shared with his human partner and handler, Officer Paul Bryant, and his family.

So beloved was Azeem - which means "mighty" in Arabic - that City Councilman-at-Large Frank Rizzo Jr. will introduce a resolution at this week's City Council meeting to honor the respected police pooch.

"He was one of the guys," Rizzo said yesterday afternoon. "I just want to recognize a great member of our Police Department."

Azeem's work was not limited to Philadelphia. He and Bryant also assisted the FBI, the Pennsylvania and New Jersey state police, and Montgomery County authorities, said police spokesman Sgt. Jim Pauley.

"Azeem was a respected member of the Philadelphia Police Department and will certainly be missed by his fellow officers," Pauley said.

"Not only was he a member of the police department family, but he was also a family member in the Bryant household."

Some highlights of Azeem's eight-year-career include his participation in the recovery efforts at Ground Zero at the World Trade Center after 9/11, and his quick discovery in 2001 of a missing New Jersey woman, Kimberly Szumski, who was buried behind a basement wall in a Society Hill property.

The duo, Bryant and Azeem, were invited to throw out the first pitch at a Phillies game at Veterans Stadium, exactly one year after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Azeem's olfactory skills in the Szumski case garnered him the prestigious 2001 Case of the Year Award given by the U.S. Police Canine Association.

Azeem was the first cadaver-sniffing dog to win the coveted national prize and the first from Philadelphia, beating out fellow cadaver sniffers as well as explosives-detecting dogs and narcotics-detecting dogs, said Russ Hess, national director of the Springboro, Ohio-based association.

The Szumski case, in which the victim was missing for 14 weeks, was "judged to be the most outstanding piece of detective work in the year 2001," Hess said.

"It takes a special dog and a special handler to do that type of work," Hess added.

Training canines to detect corpses is harder than drug or explosives detection, he said.

A body goes through various stages of decay and the dog must be familiar with an array of scents, he said.

"It's very hard to train and very hard to keep proficient at what they do," Hess said.

And the job came with its own lingo and rules that the dog had to learn. For example, when Bryant wanted Azeem to search for a body, he'd ask Azeem to "Find Fred."

He wanted to use language that was discreet if family members and friends of the victim were in earshot.

The black-and-rust-colored German shepherd was born on May 22, 1995, and about three years later - after an intense three-week cadaver-sniffing course in Bergen County, N.J. - Azeem was on the force.

His first case involved a missing 6-year-old, Jacqueline Veney, who lived on McKean Street near 21st. Bryant took Azeem into the home of the girl's foster mother, Lisa Price.

The pooch went upstairs and jumped on a bed. Paul, thinking Azeem wanted to play, was embarrassed and pulled him off. He ordered him again to "Find Fred." Azeem again jumped on the bed.

Price later admitted murdering Jacqueline on the bed.
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Barked: Fri Mar 31, '06 5:46am PST 
What a great dog!!! With all the bad stories we have been reading this is what we need. It is just a reminder that there are happy stories. This one makes my heart smile, even tho the dog passed. He was a great part of a wonderful team.