A late night ride-along with a Myrtle Beach Police Department K-9 Unit
“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?” Who hasn’t spent at least a few hours watching live-action police shows on TV such as Live PD or, the granddaddy of them all, COPS? Most of us are fascinated by the work of the police, the risks they must take in the line of duty and the often-unruly criminals they apprehend. Would a real-life night shift in the heart of Myrtle Beach live up to the carefully edited and sometimes scripted TV version? I would find out on a recent sweltering Saturday night riding shotgun, embedded with Officer Shon McCluskey and his narcotics dog, K-9 Daisy.
By the time I meet Officer McCluskey at 9 p.m. at the Myrtle Beach Police Department (MBPD) Market Common K-9 Annex, he’s been at work since 7 p.m., including a daytime meet and greet at the YMCA with two dozen children and Daisy, his three-year-old Belgian Malinois. I signed a waiver promising I wouldn’t hold the department, the officer or the City of Myrtle Beach responsible should I be involved, injured or mortally wounded in my pursuit of the up-close-and-personal policing experience on which I was about to embark.
McCluskey, 46, is fit, compact and dressed from head to toe in all black quasi-military gear—ball cap, bulletproof vest, service weapon, body cam, taser, handcuffs, flashlight, boots and who knows what else attached to every square inch of his uniform. He’s no one you’d want to mess with. However, in his 22 years of policing he’s never had to fire his gun and has only tased two people. “The vast majority of police officers never fire their service weapon in the line of duty,” he tells me, “but another officer justifiably fired his twice in the last year, so you just never know what you’ll encounter on any given shift.”
Both Daisy and McCluskey are friendly and ready to get back to work. McCluskey, originally from Pittsburgh, has lived in the Myrtle Beach area for more than two decades and started out patrolling the beach on bicycle. “I did that for two years,” he says, “and I loved it.” Married for 16 years, he calls his three dogs their “kids.” Two more civilian canines, both Chow Chows, live with the McCluskeys and Daisy at their Myrtle Beach home.
“Daisy goes to work with me every day, and comes home with me every night, and when she retires she’ll be mine then, too,” says McCluskey. The bond between animal and officer was obvious and undeniable. The two are crazy about each other, and both are deadly serious about the business of getting bad guys in custody.
With Daisy pacing and gently panting in the custom-built kennel, which takes up the entire backseat of the unmarked SUV, we leave the Market Common, the skies threatening rain, heading toward U.S. 17 Bypass. “She loves going to work,” remarks McCluskey, who spent countless hours training for this highly specialized and highly sought after work. McCluskey received his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1996.
Officer McCluskey spends his shifts following up on problem areas known for narcotics trafficking and assisting other officers who call in for his specialized K-9 services. He and Daisy help build reasonable suspicion and probable cause cases, using Daisy when drugs are suspected even in random traffic stops. He says he loves being a K-9 cop and has purposely kept his career track free of promotions, because he knows he’d be taken off the road and moved into more administrative and managerial positions. Still, with his considerable time on the force and on the street, he’s well respected, knowledgeable and articulate.
When not on patrol, McCluskey regularly trains younger officers and new recruits. Prior to his duties as a K-9 officer he was a traffic officer, responding to collisions and engaging in enforcement duties, primarily watching for impaired drivers and speeders. “The primary goal is educating the public—reducing infractions, which reduces injuries, which reduces fatalities. A traffic officer can write a ticket or issue a warning at his or her discretion,” he says. But impaired drivers better watch out. There’s no room for leniency there, as I will discover at the end of the shift.
The front seat of the SUV is loaded with technology, including radar, two-way radio communications, a full-size laptop computer, dash cam, audio/video recording equipment and even a K-9 Heat Sensor. The sensor automatically rolls down the windows and alerts the officer should a dog be alone inside and the vehicle’s air-conditioning fails. Each K-9 vehicle is a $60,000 rolling, crime-fighting, high-tech laboratory/dog kennel.
The MBPD has five active K-9 units and one spare. Another department donated Daisy, but typically the investment to purchase and train a police dog is around $11,000. Her breed is in the shepherd family, and they’re known for being bright, loyal, alert, hard working, athletic and friendly. “They’re really great narcotics dogs,” says McCluskey. The Belgian Malinois is considered the gold standard and has been called “the best police and military dog in the world.”
Nationwide, interdiction policing, something virtually every police department practices, is essentially pulling over as many drivers as possible when they’ve violated some traffic law, knowing that statistically you’ll find a few really bad apples in the process. That doesn’t mean McCluskey writes a lot of tickets. “I’m really about educating the public as to their driving behavior,” he says. “As long as their license, registration and insurance check out and they’re not exhibiting overly suspicious behavior or I suspect impairment, I usually just give a warning. Because I’m patrolling as a K-9 unit, I’m also watching for indicators to possible drug activity, and something I might want to run the dog on.”
An alarm sounds and the laptop in front of us lights up with a license plate capture image of a vehicle that has just been spotted on U.S. 501. This fully automated technology reads tag numbers using those sleek silver cameras you may have noticed high overhead on utility poles and next to traffic lights. All over the city, the county and around the U.S., these cameras record vehicles on the road. The high definition cameras read every tag number, day or night, while computers run them through a national database. When there’s a hit, the system automatically alerts patrolling officers of the whereabouts should the vehicle be stolen, the tags stolen, a wanted person, or even a vehicle out of registration. Depending on the officer’s location and the severity of the alert, they choose to respond or not. In this case we don’t; other officers were closer. This alert would sound four more times before the night was over.
“If the alert is red [as opposed to yellow] and we can verify the tag is correct, we’ll go that way,” says McCluskey. “I try not to involve myself in too many of those calls, as I have to stay available to other officers who may need the dog. I’m signed on to receive alerts from vehicles headed eastbound on 501. I want to know who’s coming into town.”
I am fully enjoying the unique opportunity to witness firsthand how McCluskey and K-9 Daisy spend their time together. It’s fun and fascinating and occasionally adrenaline producing.
Arriving in a dimly lit neighborhood near Broadway Street and Fourth Avenue North, we happen upon two officers who have stopped a middle-aged African-American woman riding a bike without a headlight, a ticketable infraction. While a small crowd gathers, McCluskey heads to the back of his truck and produces a screwdriver and a battery-powered L.E.D. bicycle light. To the woman’s delight, he gives her the light and installs it, and instructs her that it’s the law to have a headlamp on a bicycle. A man approaches McCluskey. “I ain’t trying to be cheap, my man, but if you giving away lights … I got a bike and could use one.” His request is happily fulfilled and even the other officers grab a handful for their own patrol cars. No tickets, no problems, everyone smiles, everyone is happy, and we’ve all witnessed good community policing.
We get our first narcotics call. An officer and his partner pulled a sedan over for a traffic violation near Seventh Avenue North and Chester Street. The officers suspected drugs and possible impairment, but the driver refused a search. “That’s when we get the call,” explains McCluskey. I get out to watch him and Daisy in action. The dog is very excited to finally be doing something other riding around listening to us ramble on. McCluskey walks Daisy around the suspect’s vehicle, pointing to certain spots, watching for her behavior. When she puts her paws up near the window and smells, she immediately sits. That’s her alert. The officers now have probable cause. They search the car and find cocaine and pills. Another similar stop 15 minutes later yields no alert from Daisy and the car and its passengers are free to go. No reasonable suspicion or probable cause there.
Officer McCluskey takes particular notice after getting a disturbing dispatch about calls from several witnesses who saw a vehicle speeding up U.S. 17 Bypass in the wrong direction without headlights on, now estimated to be somewhere between 38th Avenue North and Broadway at the Beach. Lucky us, we happen to be on the Bypass very near 29th Avenue North, potentially in the path of the driver who’s already caused one accident and is now fleeing from a hit and run. “Keep your eyes peeled for a car coming at us with the lights off,” says McCluskey matter-of-factly. Our blue lights are on and we’re moving at a good clip. It’s a white-knuckle moment for me, but we don’t see the suspect. We do come upon the accident, which has other officers there directing traffic and investigating. We do a U-turn and head off looking for the offender, to no avail.
We continue our search around a hotel on Oleander Drive and slowly peruse the parking lot, looking for a white SUV with damage to its left front fender. We have a vague description and a partial tag number. We cruise down Paradise Lane and come upon a vehicle possibly fitting the description parked at the end of a dead end I didn’t even know was there. McCluskey approaches the vehicle slowly while I gladly stay put. He returns a moment later. “Just a couple making out,” he says with a smile. “I guess that’s not illegal?” I ask. “As long as they’re in the front seat,” he says with a laugh. “If they’ve made it to the backseat, usually a lot more is going on and that can be a problem.”
We spend the next several hours stopping a few lost tourists who are driving without headlights and making illegal turns. All were sober, respectful and had their paperwork in order. No tickets issued. We go to a favorite dog run in the woods for Daisy to relieve herself and let off a little steam. A few minutes later, we’re first at the scene of an accident between a young woman and an Uber driver near the Burger King at 21st Avenue North and Seaboard Street. No injuries. A jovial motorcycle officer came to finish up the call. He and McCluskey enjoy a few minutes of banter and good-natured teasing. McCluskey seems to have a lot of friends on the force, and they’ll do each other favors and assist when they can. The ones I meet that night are all exemplary and I sense their camaraderie and feeling of mission and accomplishment. “I want to be a cop,” I blurt out with all sincerity and McCluskey smiles. “It’s a great job,” he says.
Driving me back to my car through the Market Common, headed west on Farrow Parkway, all is quiet. A light drizzle gives the dimly lit streets a silvery sheen. Two small headlights approach us from our right. We spot a golf cart, which runs the red light moving at a pretty good speed.
“That could be an LSV (low speed vehicle, legally allowed to drive at night),” I offer, sounding very cop-like, now fully comfortable as McCluskey’s and Daisy’s invaluable partner. “Could be stolen,” he counters. “Especially this time of night.” We swing around and follow them, noticing a young driver and passenger, the cart’s driver barely able to navigate the wide sidewalk. Our blue lights go on and they stop. What transpires in the next 40 minutes is a sad spectacle. Two young guys, soldiers from Fort Bragg, 23 and 24 years old, were returning to PirateLand Campground after presumably partying until the bars closed. It was their first night of what was supposed to be a weeklong vacation. They were in a rental golf cart and claimed not to know the illegality of driving past sunset or on the sidewalk, but that was the least of their problems.
“How much have you had to drink tonight?” asks McCluskey. “About three beers,” answers the driver. “About three beers?” repeats McCluskey. “You don’t remember? The reason I ask is because the last time I’d been drinking I knew exactly how much I had to drink. So how many have you had?” The suspect changes his tune. “Probably three to five.” After another officer working traffic arrived to move the investigation forward, the young driver miserably failed his field sobriety test, was handcuffed and taken to jail. His buddy remained calm but was worried about the trouble his friend would be facing from his superiors back at Fort Bragg. You couldn’t help but to feel sorry for the off-duty soldier, but then you stop to consider he could have killed himself, his friend and/or others—they were headed toward U.S. 17 Business. Still, a sad spectacle.
We finish the night at my car, but not before I get to witness Daisy in another of her amazing feats of skill, finding articles. “It doesn’t matter what it is,” says McCluskey, who had hidden a pair of handcuffs under the bushes. “It could be a gun, anything with human odor on it.” He gives her the command, and she finds the handcuffs in less than 10 seconds. “Amazing,” I offer. “She’s the best,” says McCluskey, rubbing Daisy behind the ears.
Another night shift completed with some bad guys caught, some good guys let go with warnings, an unsuccessful search for a hit and run, and a close look at how one particular Myrtle Beach cop and his K-9 companion spend their time together.
“I have tomorrow off,” remarks McCluskey. “Yeah?” I ask. “What are you going to do?” He pauses to let Daisy back in his vehicle. “Mow the lawn.”
Just a regular guy, after all.
Editor’s note: Anyone 21 and over who can pass a background check may request a ride-along as a part of the city’s Citizen’s Police Academy, held twice a year. The 10-week program provides in-depth classroom training and a minimum of 15 hours riding along with an officer. For more information, call (843) 918-1803 or visit police.cityofmyrtlebeach.com/program/citizens-police-academy/.