Dogs might be man’s best friend, but there is one thing K-9s Santi and Joker are more dedicated to than their police handlers: the mission.
“These K-9s are committed to keeping the community at Kennesaw State (University) a safe place to live, work and learn,” Sgt. Teddy Setser, Santi’s handler, said. “They always get excited to work.”
Like most dogs, Santi and Joker still enjoy high-pitched, “good boy” words of affirmation, toys and ear scratches. But unlike the average pup, they are trained members of the Kennesaw State University Police Department (KSUPD) and can sniff out nearly 30 different odors associated with explosives.
Joker, a German shepherd and Belgian Malinois mix, is the newest addition to the KSUPD K-9 unit. Santi, a Belgian Malinois, has been a member of the unit since 2017. Both are deployed with their handlers before large gatherings at the university.
“Being a K-9 handler is one of the most rewarding positions that a police officer can have,” said Setser, who has been paired with Santi since the K-9 joined the force. “It’s also one that requires a lot of time and commitment.”
Before they can become official members of the police department, each handler and K-9 must complete hundreds of hours of training. Cpl. Malik Letatau and Joker became a team last September, spent about a month in a bonding period, then attended a 12-week, 480-hour handler course in Monroe County. During that time, Joker learned how to search buildings, vehicles, luggage items and open areas. In March, the pair finished a 200-hour handler course in Hall County through the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency and are now fully certified.
“We have a great bond,” said Letatau, a KSU alumnus who is new to the K-9 unit but has been a member of KSUPD since 2017. “Every day, I’m impressed by how smart Joker is and how well he does his job.”
In addition to events at the university, the K-9 unit works around the metro Atlanta area, thanks to the department’s partnership with other local agencies. In the past few years, KSUPD’s K-9s worked at the World Series games at Truist Park and the 2019 Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The handlers also could get a call at any time for a suspicious package or bomb threat, which is why it’s so important to keep up with training.
In addition to certification training, the K-9 unit trains locally every day. Sometimes training happens in Fifth Third Bank Stadium; other times, the unit goes to used-car lots and practices with explosive decoys.
“It’s a full-circle moment for me,” said Letatau, who was a member of the KSU football team in 2015-16 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2017. During his time as a student-athlete, Letatau interned with the former K-9 unit sergeant, Todd Jackson, which sparked his interest in joining the university’s police department.
“I’m super thankful to be here and work with Joker,” he said. “He’s the best partner anybody could ask for.”
The entire KSUPD, which runs 365 days a year and 24 hours a day, is made up of more than 50 police officers patrolling the Kennesaw and Marietta campuses. After a shift is over, the K-9s go home with their respective handlers, who love and care for them.
“There is no bond quite like the bond shared between K-9s and handlers,” Setser said. “I can’t have a bad day when Santi is by my side. He has been nothing but loyal to me since day one, and it’s an honor to be his partner.”