Officer Gary O’Brien and  Wendy Uzelac

The Grand Rapids Police Advisory Board (PCAB) and members of the Grand Rapids Police Department are working on a collaborative project to promote public safety awareness, develop communication, and discuss current community issues for area policing. Members of PCAB will be riding along with GRPD officers over the next year for a shared community experience. The following is part three of a series.

K9 Officer Gary O’Brien, 42, a native of Grand Rapids has been member of the GRPD since 2007 while his Czech Republican-born partner Radar has been with the department since 2014. O’Brien graduated GRHS in 1995 and then served in the US Army for four years. He wasn’t sure what direction to follow once out of the military. He considered a career with the DNR because of his love for the outdoors or a career in education as he had an interest in teaching. With that he obtained his Associate Degree in Law Enforcement and took courses at Bemidji State University. He was working for the Cass Lake Police Dept. when he received the call for a job offer in Grand Rapids. He opted to end his university studies to return to his hometown, where he eventually became a D.A.R.E. officer, instructing for eight years. In 2014 he took on the title of K9 officer and partnered with his German Shepherd Radar to assist in the mastery of all things canine in our northern region.

Wendy Uzelac, 53, was born in Pennsylvania, and raised in a Chicago suburb. She came to Minnesota by way of her husband, Jim, first living in Duluth and then settling to raise their family in Grand Rapids. Uzelac, often recognizable for being a top area realtor, is the broker/owner of RE/MAX Thousand Lakes.

Several years ago, Uzelac participated in the Citizens Police Academy sponsored by the GRPD. As a business owner who works to “sell” this area, she felt it was important to really understand the structure of her local police department. She came away from the seven session course with a greater insight and awareness for her community and area policing. In 2016, Uzelac joined the Police Citizens Advisory Board, currently serving as chair.

O’Brien and Radar picked up Uzelac from her business for an evening shift ride-along. O’Brien learned right off that Uzelac was serious about taking in as much as she could on her ride-along. O’Brien smiled and said, “She took a ton of notes, asked all the right questions and really wanted to participate in every part of the shift.” And so, she did. Uzelac expressed delight in getting some excellent one on one with both O’Brien and Radar. Uzelac, a dog lover, who has raised and trained Great Pyrenees, with her daughter Nichole, through 4-H and the AKC was very interested in seeing the obedience, agility and training course used by Radar. O’Brien told her that once a person takes on the commitment to become a K9 officer, you become dedicated to your own well-being and good health. Working with a dog requires stamina.

Uzelac also saw Radar in action on a drug sniff as part of a mutual aid traffic stop. All officers in Grand Rapids provide mutual assistance within the county. O’Brien and Radar, as a specialty team, also represent aid in neighboring counties. Radar is known for being an excellent nose dog, working his sniff to track out drugs and potential suspects. On this evening, Radar was successful in alerting for drugs and paraphernalia for an arrest. Uzelac was also able to see and learn about K9 temperament with police dogs. O’Brien explained that some dogs are not as public-friendly as others – however Radar is very routine-oriented with a social aptitude. This means he knows when he is at work that O’Brien and the squad are his to protect. At home with O’Brien’s wife Mindy, his two young children, and other pets, Radar is one of the family. Radar is good at public relation events and is a cordial, even-tempered dog. Uzelac was able to sneak in a pet and was pretty sure she garnered a smile from Radar, too.

O’Brien trains continuously with Radar and said there is a skill a handler learns – which is when the dog should and shouldn’t be used. He gave an example of responding to a call of a suicidal person with a gun. As O’Brien approached the home, the man came around the corner with a gun. O’Brien and an assisting officer recognized the situation involved a mental health crisis and that their response required effective de-escalation, meaning this call was not appropriate for releasing Radar. The call could have ended with the use of deadly force and fortunately for all, on this evening, solid communication for de-escalation worked. Had the man fled into the neighborhood with a gun – then Radar could or would have been used. O’Brien said any K9 handler will tell you that their dog is a partner in every aspect – the bond is immense. Every handler also knows that the dog’s job may involve risking its life for its handler, other officers or the public. Minnesota has lost 251 K9s in line-of-duty deaths.

Uzelac was also interested in learning about the financial investment of the Radar. O’Brien said he manages his budget very well and projects for larger items so nothing becomes burdensome. Unlike the county sheriff’s department who receives donor sponsored food for their K9 unit - Radar is not a part of that same donor fund. O’Brien is always keeping an eye out for organizations that sponsor certain items like body armor, special need items, etc. The department will need a new bite suit in the near-future as the current suit is several decades old. Uzelac, who has been active in local civic groups, such as the Rotary, hopes that residents in Grand Rapids will always consider financial donations for Radar, the GRPD community ambassador, who is often one of the first dogs called out.

“I sell Grand Rapids and the surrounding area every single day and a thriving safe community is a must,” Uzelac said. “The police play a critical role in preserving what is great about a small-town region.”

O’Brien agrees. Both he and Uzelac, with a love for family, their pets, community, the great outdoors, and their jobs hold civic service high on their priority list.

After an evening of listening to O’Brien and Uzelac share experiences, Radar, too, felt like the world was a better place with them in it. At the end of “their shift” he barked and bid Uzelac a happy goodnight.

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