Sean Kirst: A photographer captures lasting image of Officer Craig Lehner - The Buffalo News

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Sean Kirst: A photographer captures lasting image of Officer Craig Lehner

The encounter, brief and unforgettable, returned to Shannon Davis as soon as she read the news reports. She is an Atlanta photographer, born in Buffalo, who's been working for two years on a photo essay about her hometown. Her focus is capturing the lives of everyday people in the city's Old First Ward.

Three months ago, in July, Buffalo Police Officer Sean Zoll agreed to give Davis a tour of the ward, as he knows it. "He patrols that neighborhood, he cares about it and he's very passionate about it," Davis said. Just before dusk, they stopped at the police department's K-9 training space, in an old industrial area along Louisiana Street.

For many reasons – because of the solitude of the spot, because of the setting sun – the moment made an impression on Davis, even before everything that happened Friday.

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Yet it takes on lasting importance because of her conversation with Officer Craig Lehner.

Lehner, 34, a nine-year veteran of the police department, has been missing since he vanished Friday during a training session for Buffalo police divers in the Niagara River. For the past four days, multiple local, state, federal and Canadian agencies have joined forces in a furious and difficult search.

Zoll introduced Davis to Lehner, who joined the K-9 unit about a year ago. Lehner told Davis about his dog Shield, a 4-year-old German shepherd purchased by the Buffalo police from a training center near Rochester. As they spoke, Davis said, the dog – intent and preoccupied – wandered in circles in the training area, nose down, sniffing the ground.

"He never stopped working," Davis said of Shield.

Lehner told her the dog, born in the Netherlands, answered at first only to commands in German. Lehner responded by teaching himself enough German to make it easier on the dog. That kind of devotion helped explain the electric and palpable connection Davis felt between the officer and the animal.

Buffalo Police Officer Craig Lehner with his dog Shield at the K-9 training area on Louisiana Street. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Davis)

Other officers have spoken of how Lehner was a distinct individual, a well-read guy who could thoughtfully discuss a range of topics, a guy who followed a disciplined fitness regimen. As a photographer, Davis said, she was struck by the way he wore his hair and the elaborate tattoos on his arms – his spiked hair, she said, "almost reminded me of flames" – but what she found most memorable was his demeanor:

"There was a soul, a humility, in a very calm way," she said. "Unlike a lot of people, he didn't want to talk about himself. He was just so proud of his dog. He just seemed like such a sensitive, thoughtful person."

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Lehner served in both Iraq and Guantanamo Bay with the Army National Guard. Davis photographed him with Shield, then spontaneously asked if she could take one portrait of Lehner, alone. Looking back on it, she is grateful for both images.

She felt one captured Lehner's pride and love for his dog, as well as Shield's intensity, the way the animal never paused from doing the job.

But she is especially pleased with the second photo of Lehner at ease. "When you see his expression, the calm, the soulfulness, the way he's so open and unguarded, that's exactly who I felt I was looking at," she said.

Lehner explained to Davis how Shield received his name, how Lehner named the dog for Buffalo Police Officer James Shields, killed in a 2002 automobile accident while responding to a robbery call. Davis, struck by Lehner's intensity and sincerity, joked with him that she could do an entire calendar on him alone, and said that at some point she hoped to photograph him again.

It was getting dark, but the training area was illuminated. Lehner told her he planned on staying late to work with Shield, and Davis asked him if that didn't make him feel alone.

"It's not lonely," Lehner said. "I've got my dog."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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