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Tigard's lone K-9 team proves a winning combination for tracking suspects

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tigard Police officers Cameron Odam, left, and Mike Powers walk with Baxter during routine training.It’s Friday night, and Tigard Police Officer Cameron Odam and his partner Baxter are on the lookout.

Patrolling in their new SUV patrol car, members of Tigard’s only K-9 unit keep their eyes peeled for drunk drivers and other problems as they cruise down Pacific Highway.

It’s a quiet night. In five hours of patrol, Odam only makes two traffic stops, and Baxter spends his evening barking and bouncing excitedly in the backseat.

But that’s not always the case. The night before, the duo was out until 7 a.m., searching for burglary suspects.

Baxter is a veteran these days, but when he came to the department in 2008, he was completely untrained.

Odam took over as Baxter’s handler in 2010, after the police K-9 spent two years paired with Officer Brian Jackson.

It’s not common for a K-9 unit to switch handlers, but it worked out well, Odam said.

“It can only work with a certain dog, fairly early in their career,” said Odam, who has served with the department since 2001. “You’ve got to have a good pairing, and it doesn’t always work.”

The team went back to training and started from scratch, Odam said.

“We said, ‘Let’s pretend he’s a new dog and redo the training so we can bond and learn together.’”

That work appears to have paid off.

In his first two years on the job, Baxter helped catch a total of five suspects. Today, he is pushing 70, and averages a capture every 18 hours.

“He’s a remarkable dog,” Odam said. “He is really good at what he does, and we are really glad to have him.”

With about 20 captures a year under his collar, Baxter is on par with K-9s in much larger precincts, Odam said.

“A good Portland dog is looking at 20 (captures) a year, and they are taking multiple calls a night,” Odam said. “If you get 20 captures a year in the Portland area, you are doing really well.”

Baxter and Odam train with Beaverton’s five K-9 teams, which use a different training method than Baxter previously followed, Odam said.

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tigard Police Officer Cameron Odam holds a Kong toy as a part of obedient training for his partner, K-9 Officer Baxter.

Bread and butter

Odam writes one ticket to a Tigard High School student driving erratically, and stops a woman near Bridgeport Village for driving without her lights on.

Most nights are like this, Odam said, but he always has his ear turned to the radio for any calls across the county.

“We are looking for any potential to deploy the dog,” Odam said. “That could be someone who is running from police, or a crime that is high profile, like a robbery, or we could be serving a warrant on a man who has run in the past or likes to fight police.”

The majority of Baxter’s night is spent patrolling or training in anticipation of a call.

Baxter and Odam have assisted in investigations in Hillsboro, Portland and Beaverton. They also responded to a call in Lincoln City while returning from a conference in the area.

“You never know where you are going to deploy or what the situation is going to be,” Odam said.

Baxter doesn’t have to be in action in order to be effective, he added.

“I have a big billboard on the side of the car that says, ‘K-9.’ Everybody knows what that means,” Odam said. “Baxter could just stand there, and that can de-escalate a situation just like that.”

In addition to keeping his handler safe, Baxter’s main responsibility is tracking down and locating suspects who have fled the scene of a crime.

“That’s our bread and butter,” Odam said. “We are tracking or checking buildings.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tigard K-9 Officer Baxter jumps out of a patrol SUV and runs towards the 'bad guy,' being portrayed by officer Mike Powers during routine training.

Thinking about the future

Odam has spent his entire law enforcement career in Tigard. He has known he wanted to become a K-9 handler since he was in elementary school.

“I saw a demo in the third grade, and that was it,” he said. “That was what I’ve got to do, and here we are 30 years later.”

Odam still has plenty of time with the department, but Baxter, who turns 7 in March, is getting up there in age, Odam said.

Odam estimated Baxter still has three or four years of work in him before he’s ready to retire. When he does, he’ll join Odam’s household as the family dog.

Odam and Baxter are Tigard’s only K-9 team, but that could change in the next few years.

There is discussion within the department to begin fundraising for a second dog, Odam said, so they can be trained and ready by the time Baxter retires.

It’s an expensive proposition: Purchasing a dog and the equipment it will need will cost the city about $15,000, Odam said.

“People love these dogs and what they can do,” he added.

Having a second dog is also good in the short-term, Odam said. When Baxter isn’t on duty, Tigard relies on other jurisdictions, such as Beaverton and Sherwood, to provide K-9 assistance. Having another dog on staff would allow other agencies to focus on their own cities without worrying about Tigard.

“If we could get seven-day-a-week coverage, I think that would be sufficient to handle what we need,” Odam said.by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tigard Police Officer Cameron Odam has been working K-9 Officer Baxter since 2010.

Public awareness

There was a time when Tigard was a regional hub for K-9 dogs. In the late 1980s, the city had four dogs, which it used to help with calls from Portland, Hillsboro and Washington County.

Over the years, the city phased out its K-9 program and went more than a decade without a dog at all before Baxter joined Tigard’s team in 2008.

But since the program was revised, Odam and Baxter have made a point of educating the public about what they do.

They are regularly seen at city events, including the Tigard Festival of Balloons, giving demonstrations of Baxter’s powerful nose.

After the Clackamas Town Center shooting, the pair made regular visits to Washington Square mall to familiarize themselves with the building and increase public awareness.

“They have invited us to come in as much as we want,” Odam said.

During their visits, they provide impromptu demonstrations and talk to shoppers to explain what they do.

The large, loveable dog would rather chew on a tennis ball than a bad guy, and his tail wags enthusiastically whenever he gets the chance to be around people.

“He is great at breaking the ice between the public,” Odam said. “There isn’t a day that I’m sitting at a coffee shop that somebody doesn’t come up and talk to me about him.”