BRADENTON -- Detective Sgt. Sean Monahan, leader of the Bradenton Police Department undercover Narcotics Unit, remembers a night about eight years ago when things went from good to bad quickly.
One of Monahan's unit members was wearing a listening device while making a drug buy in a car late at night on the east side of Bradenton.
"We all suddenly heard the suspect say, 'We are going to do it like this,'" Monahan said. "Our guy replied, 'What are you doing with that gun? You don't need that.' He was letting us know that he was about to be robbed and that things were rapidly going south."
As is always the case with this tightly knit crew that calls themselves "a family," help was nearby and an arrest was made with no one hurt.
That was just one night, one case, in the life of the local department's five-man narcotics unit (with one dog).
The unit, which averages about 10 high-risk missions a week, was just namedRegion 5 Unit of the Year by the Florida Narcotics
"I think the award represents the unit's consistent professionalism and the workload they have," Chief Michael Radzilowski said Monday.
"We've had a guy get stitches in his head, but, thankfully, no one has been shot," said Monahan, a nearly 17-year veteran of the force.
Region 5 consists of numerous municipal and county law enforcement agencies from Hillsborough County to the north to Lee County in the south.
The BPD unit includes Monahan and detectives Mike Skoumal, Ross Johnson, Eric Williams, Robert Cubas and Shannon "The Animal" Seymour.
The K-9 member of the group is Officer Wagner, a 3-year-old black Labrador trained by Johnson to sniff out drugs such as crystal methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy and heroin.
Unit members say they are gaining traction in Bradenton against the drug trade.
"I feel good about it," Monahan said. "We just got some top-level guys long sentences. It used to be that a guy was arrested and four guys were waiting to take his place. It's not like that now. I think my crew is making an impact."
There are still drugs flowing on the streets of Bradenton.
"The main thing now is a drug called Molly, which is a mixture of ecstasy, heroin and even other drugs, which can all be put in a capsule," Johnson said.
"Heroin and cocaine will not go away," Monahan said. "Heroin is making a comeback. We don't see as much methamphetamine in our town. You can still buy crack cocaine and we are still working marijuana."
The unit, small for a city of Bradenton's size, works off of complaints from citizens who call the department's main phone number at 941-932-9300 to report unusual activity, Monahan said.
"To do this kind of work, you have to start off with someone with integrity and dedication," Monahan said. "You can't have any issue with corruption. Then it's just training. We train so much that in the field the guys automatically know what to do."
The award was partially based on the unit's 2012 productivity, which the Narcotics Association termed "remarkable."
The unit seized $1,128,487 in cash, funds that have been used to purchase Tasers and other equipment, Monahan said. The unit also seized 5,153 grams of cocaine, 496 grams of marijuana, 2,189 grams of crystal methamphetamine, 208 grams of prescription medication and 37 firearms, according to department statistics.
Wagner was used in 27 cases last year and produced 20 alerts, which included 20 drug seizures and 12 arrests, according to department records.
Wagner, donated by Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, took just a few months to learn to sniff out drugs.
"Wagner is a certified passive alert narcotics dog, which means he alerts us by sitting down, his tail gets strengthened and he breathes heavier," Monahan said.
The unit will be recognized officially during the Florida Narcotics Officers' Association's 21st annual awards banquet Aug. 1. in Daytona Beach.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.