Several days after the fatal stabbing of a Pittsburgh police dog, local lawmakers are taking action to ensure that Rocco – the German shepherd K-9 officer – did not die in vain. Legislators in both chambers of state government are rolling out bipartisan measures to raise the penalty for killing a K-9 officer.
Rocco died from multiple wounds after police said he was attacked Tuesday night by John Lewis Rush, 21, formerly of McKees Rocks. Rush was wanted on warrants for probation violations and failing to register as a sex offender. He was held Friday on $1 million bail and could face a third-degree felony and up to seven years in prison for attacking Rocco and up to 20 years for attacking four police officers.
State Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, said current state law makes no distinction between killing a police dog and taunting or teasing a police dog. Smith said he and seven other senators in Allegheny County are cosponsoring “Rocco’s Law” to make it a second-degree felony to kill a police dog. The penalty would carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
“This was a really important measure to take to clarify that obviously the murder or physical harming of a K-9 officer is a much more serious offense than taunting or teasing a K-9 officer,” Smith said. “The key thing for us – one of the things we worked hard on Friday – was getting all of the Allegheny County senators on board immediately with this.”
Smith said Rocco’s Law, if passed, would closely mirror the federal law for killing a K-9 officer, which carries a $1,000 fine and a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
“(Rocco’s) abuser will not be adequately punished, and we want to make sure we change that if a horrific event occurs like this in the future,” Smith said.
State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, also will introduce a House version of “Rocco’s Law,” but White aims to make the killing of a K-9 officer and the killing of a human officer equally punishable.
Under his proposed legislation, the intentional killing of a police dog would be a first-degree felony carrying a $25,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison. The reckless or negligent killing of a K-9 officer would carry a second-degree felony, and injuring a police dog would remain a third-degree felony.
“These animals obviously are performing a service for our community that in a lot of ways people can’t perform,” White said. “They serve a vital role … As someone who is a dog owner, I can certainly appreciate that police dogs are by-and-large considered by many to be actual police officers. They’re considered part of the force.”
White said the law would not diminish the value of police officers, but would elevate the value of K-9 officers and protect the officers who train and handle them.
“If someone is willing to attack a police animal and kill it, there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t have the same mental capacity to attack and kill a uniformed police officer,” White said. “I think the punishment should fit the crime.”
State Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane, said he would support legislation to increase the punishment for killing a police dog.
“It’s important that we recognize (police dogs) as officers and protect them like they are officers, and if somebody injures them, it’s just like injuring an officer,” Neuman said. “They are being used and trained more and more often, and we’re getting more and more canine units in the area every year because of the great asset that these canines bring to our departments.”
Cecil Township Officer Jeff Holt said his K-9 partner, Miner, is frequently used by the department for finding narcotics, searching homes and tracking suspects who flee from police. Although he couldn’t speak for the department on the proposed legislation, he said Miner’s role has been “immeasurable.”
“He’s such a good tool to have,” Holt said. “He’s obviously a lot faster than the human police officers. He can pick up odors a lot better.”
Holt said the loss of K-9 officer Rocco has been difficult for everyone.
“It seems to hit everybody, whether you’re in police work or not,” he said. “It’s affected a lot of the police officers I know and work with. … It’s almost as bad as losing a human officer.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.