From destruction to distinction

Fueled by his experiences with 9/11, Lieutenant John Pappas, Canine Commanding Officer with New York City Police Department turned the ravages of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks into his unwavering motivation for attaining expertise in advanced counter terrorism tactics and deployments.

“When September 11th happened, we were very busy. We were caught up in the adrenaline rush, so it was a mix of emotions. There was anger, there was fear, there was ignorance and that gave birth to hatred on my part,” he says. “It affected me in a profound way.”

Lieutenant Pappas says he realized those negative feelings needed to be addressed and along with many police officers, he sought treatment. He and others chose to get therapy away from the job. “If you told the job that you had an issue, the way they reacted 21 years ago, they would take your guns away. They would put you on modified assignment and there was almost like a punishment.”

He says exploring his feelings and emotions made him realize, “When you hate, the hatred is born of ignorance and fear and anger and the way to combat that is, number one, admit you have a problem, and number two, realize what the problem is, then number three, address the problem. So, I immersed myself in studying radical Islam and studying terrorist tactics.”

After being tasked with creating a specialized Transit Bureau Canine Unit, the largest canine unit in the NYPD, Lieutenant Pappas became the commander of a highly-trained team of 54 handlers, each paired with their own K9. The unit performs a proactive, pedestrian and rail-based patrol, in order to deter, detect, respond and mitigate an attack in the most dense urban environment in the Western Hemisphere, the New York City Transit System.

That means, “policing the busiest ferry in America….the busiest train service in America…the busiest bus service, and the often-overlooked busiest tram in America. So, anything that moves people is my specialty,” he says.

“Because our canines are capable of being in dense crowds, the unit has also been tasked with covering all large events in New York City, such as the UN General Assembly, the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, the US National Tennis Open, all sporting events, and large parades. Over the years, my team and I have created highly advanced counter terrorism tactics and deployments, and have responded to more terror attacks than any other canine unit in the United States.”

Incorporating lessons from 9/11 and combining them with his own personal journey is at the heart of his police work. “It grew as I was creating the unit,” Lieutenant Pappas says. “I took a lot of my 9/11 rage, that negative black energy that you have to put your back into, that consumes you. I took that, put the rage aside and started studying my opponent and started understanding the person who took flight lessons to fly a plane into a building full of people to kill innocent men, women, and children…I’ve been able to embed myself in my opponent’s mind.”

He now uses that knowledge in daily deployments. “All these years later, I have a firm grasp on who a terrorist is,” he says, whether foreign or domestic, “because that’s the other rising threat now….and I’ve identified weaknesses in our transit system, and I’ve shored up those weaknesses. I’ve hardened the target.”

Dedicated to serve, protect and predict

Lieutenant Pappas says early on, he identified active shooters as a major problem. After putting together a comprehensive study, he secured grant funding for ballistic shields, which he bought and distributed in the most critical areas. “These shields are not your ordinary shields, they are 400-pound shields on wheels that can stop any kind of rifle ammunition and they can stop the shrapnel from suicide vests,” he says. Not long after getting them, the shields were used during a suicide bomber incident in a tunnel where innocent people were trapped without any cover.

“My job is not to be ahead to the curve. My job is to create the curve,” he says. “Simply because of the exposure we get in New York City. Because we’re the biggest city in America, we have a bullseye painted on us. So, we have our work cut out for us.”

He and the team also assist other canine units nationally and internationally with training, tactics, strategies deployments and more. The unit works with federal, state and local partners as well. He enjoys traveling and working with people across the globe. “It’s not like I’m just giving and giving. I’m also learning things that I’m bringing back that make New York City safer.”

K9 courage: a special calling creates a strong bond

His current K9, Palla, is a German Shorthaired Pointer. Her specialty includes explosives and counter suicide bomber intervention. Lieutenant Pappas says dogs excel at police work because “they are masters at body communication and reading body language. First off, they are phenomenal listeners, and they don’t talk back. My dog and I, because of the bond that we have, we can communicate just by looking at each other. She knows what I’m feeling, she knows when I’m not feeling well. She knows when I’m angry, she knows when I’m happy. And it’s the other way around too. It’s a very strong bond. I spend more time with my dog than I do with any other living entity. She’s always by my side, and I guess that’s what makes it special. That’s why these dogs would do anything for us. And, that’s why many of us would do anything for our dogs.”

“One of the toughest things that we have to do as handlers is when it’s time to say goodbye to our partner. You know, it’s very, very tough, emotional. It’s losing a family member, literally. And that’s what makes these dogs so good. They’re loving pack animals that like to be part of the pack. The breeds that we pick are pack-oriented, loyal, hard-working, athletic,” he says.

As respected, valued and beloved members of the NYPD, the canines take center stage at special graduation ceremonies. In tribute to police and firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice, the dogs are named after fallen heroes. Now, other departments are calling to learn how to replicate it. “That graduation is not about the police, that graduation is not about the dog, that graduation is about that family. It’s about honoring that family,” Lieutenant Pappas says. “We’re telling the family we remember your loved one, and some of these people that we name our dogs after died in the 1970s or in the 1950s, and their families come together for it. We let them know we’re not forgetting you. You’re a part of us.”

NYPD Police Academy Transit K9’s Graduation Ceremony

Lieutenant Pappas considers it a privilege to be in command of one of the most advanced canine units in the world, much of it stemming from that one specific day.

“September 11th left an indelible mark. It burned something in our soul. And, we’ve taken a lot of the lessons from it and applied them,” he says. Each day he puts on the uniform he is dedicated to preventing similar tragedies, not only for the city, its citizens and visitors, but for his fellow first responders as well.

“My job is to make sure that none of my people get hurt and they all come home the same way that they went to work.”

By Marlene Casillas