Sterling Police Department’s Brinkley is not your typical police dog

Isaiah Williams gifts Sterling Police mascot Brinkley a shaved ice with a dog treat from the Kona Ice truck at the Juneteenth celebration.

Sterling Police Department’s favorite officer, Brinkley the golden retriever, is getting ready to retire.

She joined the department on Feb. 27, 2017. She will retire June 12 after seven years of service as a community service dog, rather than your typical K-9.

When thinking about a police dog, the K-9 unit most often comes to mind. K-9s ride with patrol officers, performing duties like drug searches, apprehensions and search and rescue. They’re typically more aggressive and are not supposed to be touched.

Brinkley, however, loves cuddles, pets and getting in a quick nap under officers’ desks throughout the workday. Her job description is as a comfort and community service dog. She attends community events, visits schools, supports youths and abuse victims, and is intended to bridge the gap between members of the community and the police department.

“I firmly believe that Brinkley was born for this job,” Tekla Martin, Sterling’s community service officer and Brinkley’s handler, said.

Martin said she could go on for hours about Brinkley’s “special stories.”

“I firmly believe that Brinkley was born for this job.”

—  Tekla Martin, Sterling Police Department community service officer

One of them, she recalled, happened during a trip to a rehabilitation center. They were visiting a woman who’d had a stroke. The nurse informed Martin that the patient had been unable to speak since the stroke.

When they got to the woman’s room, Brinkley jumped up on the bed with her and lay down.

The woman began petting Brinkley and said, “Pretty dog.”

Martin said the nurse told her, “Those are the first words that she’s uttered in over six months.”

Another story Martin recounted happened during the aftermath of the Dixon High School shooting on May 16, 2018, when 19-year-old student Matthew A. Milby Jr. opened fire in the hallway leading toward the gym, shooting at and missing physical education teacher Andrew McKay. The gym at that time was filled with about 180 seniors rehearsing for graduation. Milby was pursued by then-Dixon High School resource officer Mark Dallas. Milby shot at Dallas, then was himself shot in the shoulder and hip before surrendering at his car.

Martin said when they arrived at the school, Brinkley, ignoring her commands, led her through a crowd of hundreds of students. They arrived at a group of kids sitting on the ground in a semi-circle, and Brinkley lay down in front of a boy at the end of the circle.

Martin said a teacher came up behind her and thanked her. Not understanding, Martin said, “Well you’re welcome but I really don’t know what we’ve just done.”

The teacher explained that all of the students were autistic and were by the gym when the shooting took place. The boy that Brinkley laid down in front of was nonverbal.

The boy was petting Brinkley, so Martin knelt by him and began petting her as well.

“Oh, isn’t she soft,” Martin recalled saying to the boy.

He nodded his head, yes.

“Do you like her?”

He gave Martin a thumbs up.

She turned around and noticed that the teacher she spoke to was crying. The teacher told her that was the most communication they had ever seen from him.

“That’s why I say that she was born to do this job. She just senses things that we don’t. I would’ve had no idea that that group of kids was there,” Martin said.

Among the many stories Martin told, she emphasized the work Brinkley has done with the children at April House, a children’s advocacy center in Whiteside County.

Child advocacy centers offer referrals to therapy, medical exams, courtroom preparation, victim advocacy and other needed services to children who have been abused. A large component of their work is to investigate child abuse cases in a way that is child-friendly and trauma-informed.

The first piece of that is conducting an interview with the child whom they suspect has been abused. The interview is designed so the child only has to tell their story once to a forensic interviewer who knows the right questions to ask in a way that does not retraumatize the child.

They use a multidisciplinary team that includes medical professionals, law enforcement, mental health providers, prosecutors, child protective service workers, victim advocates and other professionals to make decisions together about how to help the child, based on the interview.

When an interview is scheduled at April House, Brinkley and Martin are asked to come to the center. They will be there to greet the child at the door and will sit with the child and their caregiver in the waiting room before the interview, said Carrie Melton, April House executive director.

Brinkley provides comfort and acts as a distraction for the child. She’ll sit with them, lay on the floor with them, perform tricks for treats and take pictures with them. Sometimes it’s simply just her presence that has a positive impact on the child, Melton said.

During one of their visits to April House, Brinkley greeted the child at the door and sat with them as usual, but this child did not want to do their interview.

Martin said that while she and the child were interacting with Brinkley, she asked the child, “Well, do you want to take Brinkley with you?”

“I said, ‘Here’s her leash. You just take her with you,’” Martin said.

The child then took Brinkley into the interview with them.

Melton recalled the same story.

“Without that kindness and calmness, we are sure that child would have been less comfortable in the interview,” she said.

Over the years, Brinkley has been there for children of all ages and has put hundreds of smiles on children’s faces there, Melton said.

“When Brinkley greets the child at the door, you can visually see how the child becomes more relaxed,” Melton said.

Sterling police officers, April House employees and community members have all marveled at Brinkley’s work over the years. Before her adoption by the department, community service dogs weren’t common for a police department.

Sterling Police Chief Alex Chavira said the department’s program is the first in the country.

The community service dog program was developed by former Sterling Police Chief Tim Morgan and former patrol officer Niki Diehl, Chavira said.

After a year of having Brinkley at the station, in 2018 they introduced the position of community service officer. The job, now filled by Martin, includes many responsibilities, but its main focus is on building and maintaining a close relationship with the community and taking care of Brinkley.

In the years since the program’s inception, the department has been contacted by many other police departments looking for guidance on starting a similar program, Martin said. They include police departments in Coralville and Davenport, Iowa; Libertyville and Elgin; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“Those are the ones that I wrote down,” Martin said. “I quit writing them down when they became so frequent.”

In preparation for Brinkley’s retirement, a new comfort dog will take her place. The new dog’s handler is Community Service Officer Mary Toth.

“The new puppy is going to have some big shoes to fill,” Martin said.

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Payton Felix

Payton Felix

Payton Felix reports on local news in the Sauk Valley for the Shaw Local News Network. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago in May of 2023.