In the four years since Corporal Trip Meacham and K-9 Mirza have been partners, the duo have racked up millions of dollars worth of confiscated drug money and narcotics as part of the Bryan County Sheriff Department’s traffic unit.
Meacham said the advantages of being assigned as a K-9 handler are more than meets the eye.
"If you’re out on a traffic stop and something goes wrong, she’s your back-up," said Meacham. "Mirza is a very big help not just in drug finds but in protection. It’s like a (bullet-proof) vest. I wouldn’t think about going to work without my vest on – just like I wouldn’t think about going to work without her. She plays that big of a role in my life in doing what I do."
Meacham explained the process of a traffic stop in which Mirza would come into play. If narcotics are suspected to be present, he said law enforcement will first ask for consent to search the vehicle. If consent is denied, a "free air scan" is conducted. This entails walking Mirza around the vehicle to see if she detects an odor of narcotics. If so, this allows Meacham and his fellow deputies’ legal right to detain the driver in order to search the vehicle to find what is causing the K-9 to react.
Meacham said this could potentially be a dangerous situation. If drugs are indeed in the vehicle, it is a known risk for a struggle to ensue with someone who senses they are about to be busted.
"No one knows, except for a police officer, the anxiety and the fear that you go through when you step out of that vehicle and you make your way to the driver’s window – not knowing whether or not you’re going to go home to your family," said Meacham. "Mirza levels the playing field a little bit. She has been a very big deterrent in situations where a traffic stop starts to turn confrontational or aggressive."
"I love being a K-9 handler," Meacham added. "It helps ease that tension. If it were up to me, I’d say every officer needs a K-9 with them. There are some dangerous and careless people out there. With a K-9, your back-up is 15 seconds away as opposed to 15 minutes away."
Meacham said he dreamed of becoming a fulltime K-9 handler since first joining the force in 2001.
Before the department purchased Mirza in 2003, deputies utilized bloodhounds. Meacham said he requested to be assigned to duty every time the bloodhounds were put to use, and he often spoke to his supervisors, Lt. David Blige and Sheriff Clyde Smith about his passion for K-9 work.
When the Sheriff approached Meacham in 2003 about going fulltime with it, Meacham immediately accepted the position and was sent off to San Antonio, Texas for 5 weeks of K-9 training. At the academy, Meacham met Mirza who he said was their showcase dog. "Mirza was their star student at the time, so I knew we were getting a good K-9 right from the start. Since then, we have forged a really strong relationship. We spend a lot of time in that squad car together. I talk to her. People think I’m crazy, but I talk to her just like I would a human partner. We argue with one another. We’re both hard-headed and stubborn – I get my way sometimes and other times she gets hers."
Upon finishing training, Mirza came home with Meacham where he has become a welcome addition to his family unit of his wife, Richmond Hill 2006 Firefighter of the Year, Michelle Meacham and their other dog, Savannah.
Meacham said Mirza quickly proved herself to be a vital member of the BCSD’s traffic unit. The unit also consists of Deputy Mark Crowe, Deputy Shane Tatum and unit commander Lt. David Blige.
"Mirza is a very valued member of this unit," said Blige. "If not for her, many of our seizures may not have occurred. She’s just like one of us and we all respect her and her role. Mirza is regarded as a partner around here; she’s earned it."
Mirza and Meacham have tons of success stories under their belt.
"Mirza’s first big seizure was for Lt. Blige which was 100 pounds of marijuana in 2005. She’s helped the unit seize millions of dollars in drug money also."
Meacham explained how Mirza is utilized to detect trace odors of narcotics on drug money which helps secure the seizure.
"Mirza’s first major case with U.S. currency was detecting trace odors on a $1.1 million that Lt. Blige recovered from a single vehicle in 2005."
Mirza has been trained to detect four odors: cocaine, marijuana, heroine and meth. This comes into play quite often as there has proven to be a lot of drug traffic activity on the major roadways in Bryan County.
"Like Sheriff Smith told the department back in 1996, Interstate 95 is the pipeline for the transportation of narcotics for the east coast," said Meacham.
Unit member Deputy Mark Crowe estimates that, in the last decade, the unit has seized approximately $10 million in drug money and about that same street dollar value in narcotics.
The department gets to keep a percentage of the money the unit confiscates. Meacham said this allows the department to obtain state-of-the-art crime fighting equipment, vehicles and a variety of other benefits.
"Since 1996, tax payers have not had to buy the first vehicle, the first uniform - anything that we utilize...even the new 911 communication center on Hwy. 17," Meacham added. "It’s all been funded by the traffic unit. These same resources were used to invest $15,000 when we got Mirza, and that investment has showed returns of a hundred fold."