He’s a black Czech Shepherd who didn’t understand English when he first came to the United States in 2007. These days, he’s New Jersey’s top dog as the current K-9 record holder for the most apprehensions: 67.
Meet Zero and his handler-partner, Lt. Zsakhiem “Zak” James, of the Camden County Police Department.
The pair patrol Camden, a city with a reputation for its mean streets and, until recently, a consistently high ranking as one of America’s most dangerous cities. Each day, Zero and Lt. James work hard to shatter those notions by being out in the community and interacting with residents — in particular the children.
On a recent cool and misty afternoon, Lt. James, who was born and raised in Camden, brought Zero for a visit to the Chelton Terrace Community Center in the city’s Centerville neighborhood in South Camden. It wasn’t long after the officer parked his SUV, a clearly marked K-9 unit, when neighborhood children started to gather around asking excitedly, “Where’s Zero?”
Lt. James nodded at the small crowd and responded: “He’s taking a break but he’ll be out in a minute.” Seeing and hearing the children’s enthusiasm made the burly police officer smile widely and declare: “This is why I love what I do.”
Often called Officer Zero, he considers visiting schools and community events one perk of having the “best job,” as he calls it. Lt. James welcomes these opportunities and added that being Zero’s handler is another one of his job perks.
His love for his job and the K-9 he affectionately calls “my better-looking partner” was apparent when he swung open the SUV door and Zero came bounding out. “Cute and cuddly,” Lt. James commanded. Instantly, Zero flopped down on his side, legs relaxed, as he waited patiently for belly rubs.
Wide-eyed children stood a few feet away as Lt. James encouraged them. “Come on over. You can pet him,” he said. James sensed apprehension and asked, “Are you afraid of him? He’s nothing but a giant Build-A-Bear with teeth.”
The children giggled, ran over, and crouched beside Zero. Tamara Williams, 5, gently stroked Zero’s fur and called him a “pretty black dog” and added: “I’m not afraid of him.” Her mother, Jenny Leaming, watched how Zero readily accepted the affection and heard the way Lt. James spoke with the children. She said, “It’s good for kids to see the dog and the police up close, so they won’t grow up to be afraid of them.”
Those are words that Lt. James likes to hear. He calls community outreach events such as these “positive engagements” because they provide opportunities to build trust.
“When parents bring kids out to see us, Zero helps to build trust. First, the kids trust us, and then the adults trust us. We hope for as many positive engagements as we do for service calls, which sometimes turn into negative engagements.”
As for those “negative engagements,” or the times when Lt. James puts Zero into action, he first gives the suspect a chance to surrender by warning, “This is the police. You are under arrest. I have a trained police dog. I will release him. He will find you and he will bite you.”
Once Zero is released, he runs to find the suspect and holds on until Lt. James gets there. Of his partner’s record, the officer said, “Although he has the record for apprehensions, he actually has more surrenders.”
He also recognizes the impact of having a K-9 for a partner. “Zero’s presence alone signifies strength. No one wants to get bitten by a dog. Someone might argue with a police officer, but they’re not going to argue with a K-9.”
As a reward for helping to nab a bad guy, Lt. James treats Zero to a 20-piece chicken McNugget meal from McDonald’s. The special meal also serves as a cleansing of the palate of sorts. “It helps get the taste of the bad guy out of his mouth,” the officer said.
Does Zero share the nuggets with his partner? “No,” Sg. James responded, but “sometimes he’ll share the fries.” When asked if Zero had a record for the amount of time it took him to down the nuggets, he laughed: “I never timed him, but it’s quick!”
Of their partnership, Lt. James said that the two have been paired together since 2007. The department hadn’t had a canine program in 12 years, and the officer worked to reinstate it. “I feel lucky they chose me,” he said.
He explained that when matching the dog to an officer, “the temperament of the dog is matched to the temperament of the handler.”
Despite Zero being 11 years old, Lt. James said he will continue to work as long as he is healthy. “He may be 11, but he still looks good. His hips are still nice and round. He isn’t showing any signs of dysplasia,” the officer pointed out.
Lt. James notes his partner still runs around and acts like a puppy. Meeting the community is “what he lives for.” That was evident during their demonstration in front of a captive audience at the community center. When the officer commanded Zero to clamp down on the bite sleeve attached to his arm, Zero responded obediently with an intense grip. That intensity allowed James to suspend Zero in mid-air while spinning around as if the two were on a merry-go-round.
With Zero holding on tight, Lt. James seized the opportunity to ask the kids in the audience, “Would you like to have a job where you get to play with your dog all day?” They all yelled emphatically, “Yes!”
“Then, stay in school, do your homework, graduate, and then you’ll get to pick what you want to do,” he responded.
After the demonstration was over, a few children came over to say goodbye to Lt. James and Zero. Dajion Howard, 10, was impressed at how well Zero listened to the commands. He said that because Zero is out in the community, “It helps me to know police are always my friends.”
Roshan Pulliam, 12, wants to become a police officer. He said, “I have to go to school, study, and always do my homework.”
As Zero jumped into the backseat of the SUV, Lt. James said, “My hope is that we can reach kids now to help shape their future. I’d rather reach them now, when they’re still young, than have Zero chase after them when they’re adults.”
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About the author: Anne Forline is a freelance writer in Bellmawr, New Jersey. She is an unrepentant foster failure. Her three rescue bunnies, JoJo, Bennie, and Nibbles, allow Anne, her husband, Steve, and daughter, Cara, to share a home with them. Anne likes to run 5Ks and has placed a few times in her age division. She is also a certified teacher who homeschools Cara. Anne makes friends with all of the neighborhood dogs and keeps treats handy to give out when they pass by on their walks. See more of her work at anneforline.com, and follow her on Twitter at @AnneForline.