The Nose Knows

Lulu, an electronic storage detection K-9, is hard at work sni~ ng out crime for the Department of the Attorney General’s Hawai‘i Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Lulu is friendly and approachable, a real natural at making new friends. She is intelligent, patient and highly skilled. She may not be much of a talker, but she certainly knows how to listen — and every day she helps to protect thousands of children in Hawai‘i, Guam, Saipan and American Samoa.

Oh, and she just happens to be a Labrador. Yes, the dog.

Lulu has a job no human could ever manage as an electronic storage detection K-9 working for the Department of the Attorney General’s Hawai‘i Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Her objective: Sniff out devices belonging to criminals of child exploitation, obscenity and pornography.

To be sure, it’s no easy task, and though it may have only been just shy of a year since Lulu took to the job, the 3-year-old already has made quite the dent. With Lulu pitching in on Operation Keiki Shield last year, for example, ICAC and its county, federal and military law enforcement partners ran three operations that led to the arrest of 28 suspects.

Lulu demonstrates how she works during a search warrant.

“It’s a problem in Hawai‘i; it’s a problem anywhere,” says supervisory special agent Edward Arias, commander of the Hawai‘i ICAC Task Force. “It is children that are vulnerable on technology, on the internet, and adults that are trying to exploit them.”

“Our mission is technology-facilitated sex crimes against children,” puts in special agent Alani Bankhead, Lulu’s handler.

“It’s another tool — it’s an important tool — in finding evidence to prosecute people,” adds Arias of his department’s four-legged asset.

Shockingly, Lulu was not always a model of success. She got her start as an Indiana Canine Assistance Network service dog trainee — before she failed out of the program almost two years in.

“She barks at other dogs because she wants to play, and you can’t do that if you’re a service animal,” says Bankhead with a laugh.

But while Lulu may have lacked composure, she had more than enough gumption.

Enter Todd Jordan, whose Jordan Detection K-9 has successfully trained 36 other pups just like Lulu that now work throughout the nation.

“Lulu had high energy; she loves food, which is a benefit to our program since we use food rewards; and she had a sweet personality that was very willing to please,” recalls Jordan, whose first electronic storage detection K-9 graduate, Bear, also a Labrador, found key evidence humans missed that helped to convict former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle. “All of these attributes made her a good candidate to become a working dog in a little different capacity than an assistance dog.”

Officially speaking, Lulu underwent a “career change,” and began working daily to learn how to detect the odor of the chemical used in digital media, like those minuscule SD cards that are easy to tuck away (including the one Bear found containing 80,000 images of child pornography in a hidden safe in U.S. gymnastics coach Marvin Sharp’s gym).

Once Lulu mastered that, she connected with Bankhead, who underwent two weeks of training to become her handler.

Today, Bankhead estimates the duo goes out into the field about once a month.

The way it works is deceptively simple. After a search warrant has been granted, Bankhead and Lulu arrive at the location and wait for authorities to complete their initial investigation. Then, Lulu gets her chance to explore.

If she happens upon a discovery, which is often the case, she sits while Bankhead gives the command “show me” to have her hold the pose while a photographer on scene snaps a picture for evidence.

“She’ll always find stuff that we didn’t catch,” says Arias.

As soon as that’s complete, Lulu gets to cash in on what’s become her after-search warrant special: a Spam musubi.

“She’s obsessed — 7-Eleven is her favorite place on the island,” says Bankhead as Lulu’s ears come to attention.

Since Lulu isn’t out working search warrants every day, she and Bankhead spend that off-time running through practice exercises to reinforce her skills.

She also draws upon those years spent training to become a service animal to act as a comfort dog when called upon. Should investigators come across a child who has been sexually abused, Lulu can be there throughout the investigation, and as they undergo interviews and court appearances.

“All of our dogs that are working are also comfort dogs,” says Jordan. “They also provide distraction and comfort to law enforcement officers that spend their day dealing with crimes against children, and offer them a nice break from the things they have to see and hear about.”

Bankhead and Lulu lend their time to just about any organization that’ll have them, such as Susannah Wesley Community Center and Hale Kipa, the latter of which serves as the only overnight shelter for child victims of sex trafficking. They also work with Ho‘ōla Nā Pua, which earned the pair the Advocacy Award at the organization’s annual Pearl Gala last year.

“Alani and K-9 Lulu provide a specialized skill set critical to detecting and protecting children in harms way,” says Jessica Munoz, Ho‘ōla Nā Pua founder and president.

On a lighter note, Lulu — who knows about 50 commands that include everything from giving high-fives to hugs and kisses — also helps Bankhead lead discussions on internet safety and human trafficking throughout the community at schools, organizations and events.

All of it is documented on Lulu’s very own Instagram account (@k9.lulu), which, as it turns out, not only has served to reinforce the messages they share but also has connected the department with those in need of help.

“We’ve actually had people (direct message) us about trauma,” says Bankhead. “I think she’s been a little bit of an outlet as well because she’s a safe entity to talk to.”

The up-and-down — or rather, down-and-up — tale of Lulu’s personal journey also is a life lesson Bankhead likes to pass on to youth.

“In that moment where she failed, they put several years of training into her, and I’m sure it was very frustrating, but she couldn’t have imagined she’d be in Hawai‘i, (and) instead of focusing on one person, she’s now protecting thousands of kids,” she says. “Just to kind of encourage people, if they feel like they’re not doing well in life, to keep trying and don’t give up.”

In the meantime, Lulu, who was not a fan of snow in her native Indiana, is enjoying Hawai‘i.

“She’s a total island girl,” says Bankhead.

That is, of course, when she isn’t hard at work.

Technology-facilitated child sex abuse is a pressing problem here in the state, says Bankhead. For far too long, predators have flown under the radar — but she believes that’s about to change.

In the three weeks since she and Lulu met with Mid-Week, for instance, Operation Keiki Shield arrested another six suspects.

“We’re just getting started,” says Bankhead.

To request a visit from Lulu, call 586-1160.