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Sniffing out missing people: Police using new tool to track down those who've disappeared

Posted at 6:52 AM, Feb 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-26 23:49:57-05

MAYWOOD, NJ — There's a new tool to help police K9 dogs in their search for missing people.

It's called "Find 'em Scent Safe," and a police department in New Jersey is the first in the nation to purchase the kits and offer them at zero cost to their residents.

Detective Christopher Nichols and his K9 Remi gave a demo of how the kits work.

"Scent is unique to the individual," said Nichols. "Just like we all have different fingerprints, we all have different scents."

Remi is a 3-year-old bloodhound. She's sweet-natured, friendly, with a beautiful coat of chocolate brown fur and a keen sense of smell. Now that powerful nose is getting even more assistance with these kits.

It's essentially a do-it-yourself human scent collection. It was created by a company out in California and was made with at-risk individuals in mind. Like children, people with dementia or someone with a disability. The fear: they may go missing. The hope: their scent is immediately available to assist in a search.

"It was originated by Dr. Coby Webb. She's from the Riverside County Sheriff's Office," said Nichols. "She's a captain there and she pretty much coined bloodhounds in California. She saw the problem a lot of us are seeing now that when you come to these calls for these missing people, there's no scent articles available."

The kit comes in packaging resembling a DVD case. Directions show how to swab scent off of the individual using enclosed gauze pads. It's then placed back in the plastic box and stored in a freezer to keep fresh.

"It helps us when it comes to time management, the longer we spend looking for a scent article, minutes count. The average person could walk four miles an hour. So if it takes us an hour, two hours to find a good scent article, you're now well ahead of us," Nichols said. "In order to find missing people with a bloodhound, you need something they wore, touch or otherwise came into contact with to get that person scent off of. Without that, you're not able to trail the person that went missing."

Remi was used 75 times last year alone, and she has an excellent success rate. The scent kits are just an added tool.

"A scent is actually DNA that is made up from a person that they shed in skin cells," said Nichols. "As we walk, the skin cells fall off of us like confetti. They hit the ground and that develops a trail of where that person walked. Over time, confetti breaks down and that scent's no longer there."

Detective Nichols gives us a firsthand demo on how it works. Another officer uses the gauze to swab her neck, and her collected scent is stored. Then the officer hides behind a building.

"The scent's drifting off of her right now as she's walking and it's just going to drift down and hit the ground, same as you would throw confetti up and it comes to the ground," said Nichols.

When Remi is put to the test, she takes a sniff of the scent kit and off she goes.

Remi takes off at lightning speed, with her nose to the ground. Remi picks up the trail. In a matter of minutes, this dog sleuth solves her case. Remi's reward - hot dogs, her favorite treat!

Remi isn't the only bloodhound getting help.

K-9s in Citrus and Pasco counties have been using their own scent kits to find missing people for at least several years.

So far, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office has a scent database with 120 people.

Both Pasco and Citrus counties offer scent kits free of charge.

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office asks those who can afford it to make a donation to help support this vital mission.

Deputies say when done correctly, the collected scents can last up to 10 years.

This story was originally published by Shirley Chan for PIX11