San Diego gets Southern California's first electronics-sniffing K9 officer

Willow trained to find electronic media devices
Posted at 4:01 PM, Dec 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-18 21:34:37-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- Law enforcement agencies in San Diego County have a new tool in the fight against child predators: Southern California’s first electronics-sniffing dog.

Willow, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is trained to sniff out the chemical used to coat all kinds of electronic storage media, including microSD cards, thumb drives, hard drives, cell phones and tablets.

She works in partnership with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC), the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.

“Our whole goal with ICAC is to save kids,” said Willow’s handler Ron Burleson. “If they’ve got any homemade images, there’s a kid out there that needs to be rescued, needs to be found. So that can make all the difference in the world when we can find that hidden media.”

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K9s have a long history in law enforcement as drug, arson and bomb-sniffing dogs, but this sniffing specialty has only been around since 2012, when Connecticut State Police trained the world’s first electronic storage detection K9.

The breakthrough came after Connecticut State Police chemist Dr. Jack Hubball discovered that all media with a circuit board -- like hard drives, thumb drives and SD cards -- is covered with a chemical to prevent overheating called triphenylphosphine oxide (TPPO).

Once trained, dogs will sniff out the chemical for a reward. In Willow’s case, she gets three cups of food a day, and only after she sniffs out a device.

“Two or three times a day, I’m hiding storage media and then we’re training, we’re working,” said Burleson. “That’s how she gets fed.”

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Willow spent four months training with Todd Jordan, whose first electronics detection dog, Bear, made a key discovery in the child sex crimes case against former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle.

Willow has been on the job in San Diego County since November and took part in her first local search a few weeks ago at the home of a registered sex offender.

“And we searched the house and she was able to find a cell phone that had been missed previously during the search,” Burleson said.

Although Willow has a narrow specialty, Burleson said she’ll be busy. San Diego ICAC will have about 2,000 cases this year, he said.

When she’s not working, Willow lives with Burleson.

“I’ve had many requests that the next time any friends or family lose their cell phone, they want me to bring Willow over,” he said.

The funding to buy Willow, who cost about $11,000, came from the San Diego Police Foundation through an anonymous donor, Burleson said.