LAW ENFORCEMENT: K9 Koa retires after an illustrious career
K9 Koa and his handler Officer Dave Gibbons working together in a police dog competition.
by Mark McDermott
Manhattan Beach Police Department Officer Dave Gibbons experienced the most eerily quiet work week he’s had in seven years two weeks ago.
Not a single bark emanated from his patrol car. It was the first week of retirement for his longtime partner, K9 Koa, who was famous within MBPD for many things — his 166 deployments in high-risk incidents, the 64 arrests he made, the 2,500 pounds of illegal drugs he seized, and the $1.1 million in narcotic-related sales money he confiscated. But among his police colleagues, Koa was perhaps best known for a trick he liked to play, which was to remain silent in his and Gibbon’s patrol car until the very last moment when a fellow officer walked by, and then issue a shockingly loud bark that never failed to make even the most seasoned police officer jump.
“Koa had a very good habit of scaring just about everyone who walked by the car,” Gibbons said. “He’d kind of wait until you were close, and even the more veteran officers who knew — he’d always wait and get them when they walked by the car and bark. Everyone’s still talking about it, like, ‘I knew what was coming, but it would still scare the crap out of me. You know, I thought he wasn’t paying attention or something.’”
“One of my regrets was not putting up a GoPro somewhere, getting it captured when it happened,” Gibbons said.
Koa will be missed for more crucial reasons, of course. His arrival at scenes in which officers had located criminals helped avert confrontations, not only putting officers less in harm’s way, but also the suspects themselves.
“The best thing about having a patrol dog is that 99% of the time, just their mere presence at a scene will convince someone to just give up peacefully,” Gibbons said. “Sometimes we don’t even have to use the dogs — just telling them that we’re going to use a dog, or them seeing or hearing the dog bark, it kind of calms everything down, if you will. It’s almost like the dogs give them common sense, and they decide, ‘Okay, I don’t want to get bit by a dog, so I’ll just give up.’ It prevents the officers from having to go into dangerous situations, and it prevents the suspect from having to get hurt or to fight with the officers. So it’s kind of an amazing thing, where if the dogs just kind of make everyone give up.”
K9 Koa made several high profile arrests and confiscations, and his numerous detections of fentanyl — an opioid 50 times more potent than heroin that causes thousands of deaths each year in the U.S. — as well as cocaine and methamphetamines undoubtedly saved many lives.
One of more unusual incidents K9 Koa was involved in was a traffic stop in which he found a hidden cavity in the door of a car with a massive stash of cash.
“The driver and the passenger were acting suspiciously, so we did a narcotic detection sweep around the car, and Koa alerted to the door on the passenger side,” Gibbons said. “The panel was loose, and inside we found these giant bindles of cash that were stuck in the walls of the door. It ended up being about $700,000 in cash that was coming from Northern California going down to Mexico for the cartel. You know, it was just a normal traffic stop, and you end up finding almost three-quarters of a million dollars in the door of a car. Which was pretty cool.”
Gibbons had been around dogs all his life. In he 2017, applied to become a handler within the MBPD K9 program. After he was accepted, Gibbons and other members of the program went to a police dog vendor in Riverside to select a potential K9 partner. Koa stood out from the beginning. He is part Belgian Malinois and part German Shepard, which Gibbons said was a perfect mix for what MBPD was looking for — the latter breed are among the most intensely active, athletic, and trainable dogs in both the police and military service dog world, while German Shepherds offer a calmer kind of intelligence.
“Koa is kind of like the best of both worlds,” Gibbons said. “He’s got all the energy and craziness of a Malinois, but then he’s a little smarter, I guess, like a Shepherd.”
The department needed a dog who could both serve on patrol and detection calls, but also go out to school campuses and have fun interacting with kids in more of a social, approachable, get-to-know your police kind of role.
“We didn’t need a dog who was something like what the Sheriff’s department or LAPD would use, but a dog who was going to be used at more community events, as well as being a good police dog, on top of that,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons’ hope in becoming a handler was to be involved in some of the department’s most challenging calls. He got his wish.
“When you go to work, K9 handlers are not out there taking your run of the mill petty theft reports, or neighbor dispute calls,” he said. “You’re on the more exciting and maybe dangerous calls.”
K9s live 24/7 with their handlers. Koa is the kind of dog who switches gears and is amiable and playful while off duty. But he was always excited to go to work.
“It’s funny because he has a kennel in the backyard, and when I go out to let him out of the back of the kennel, if I’m just in normal, everyday clothes and open the kennel, Koa just roams the backyard like a normal dog would — you know, sniffing, peeing on a tree or whatnot,” Gibbons said. “But if I went in the backyard in uniform, like when we’re getting ready to go to work, he would immediately go right out of the kennel to the back door, ready to come to work. No sniffing around or anything.”
As Mayor Joe Franklin was quick to understand when meeting Koa at a City Council ceremonial recognition on January 16, if Koa had his druthers, he’d keep working. “I don’t think he wants to retire,” Franklin said.
Koa is only eight years old, an age at which many police dogs are still working. But a recent examination found a discs in his back was wearing out, not a life-threatening condition, but one that would worsen if he continued his workload — which included intense weekly training, as well as the usual high-stakes patrol, detection, pursuit, and SWAT calls. Now, Koa has a new job, in retirement — to serve as Gibbons’ one-year-old son’s buddy. He’s excelling at that role, as well.
“You know, when my son tries to pet him, which turns into more like whacking him, he’ll just sit there and let him do it,” Gibbons said. “He’s patient.”
The MBPD Police K-9 Foundation will help provide for Koa as he grows older, helping to pay for his day-to-day expenses as well as any medical needs that arise. The foundation is a non-profit that not only takes care of retired K9s but helps MBPD obtain new ones. This spring, the foundation will provide the $30,000 needed for MBPD to obtain its first bomb-detection dog, a Labrador trained for this specialty.
Gibbons, in the meanwhile, is still finding things a little too quiet as he goes to work without Koa.
“It’s definitely very weird,” he said. “You don’t have someone over your shoulder the whole time, no one barking at other police cars or whatnot, no one staring at you as you eat your lunch in the car. So it’s been a big adjustment.”
For more information on the MBPD Police K9 Foundation, or to contribute, see MBPDK9.com. ER