Legislation that would strengthen the penalties against killing or torturing a law enforcement animal might not have saved K-9 Officer Rocco’s life, but one lawmaker hopes it could save other K-9 officers such as Mt. Lebanon Police Department’s “Snieper.”
That is the goal of state Sen. Matt Smith (D-Allegheny) who said he saw how valuable the canines are when he visited Officer Snieper and his handler, Officer Ben Himan Monday.
“The canine officers are frequently the first ones to go into a building, into a home, confronting danger, initially, so that the police officer then has time to do what he or she needs to do in the execution of their duty,” Smith said.
The commonwealth’s current law does not differentiate between injuring and killing a canine officer. Both are considered a third-degree felony with a penalty of up to seven years imprisonment and a $15,000 fine.
“Rocco’s Law” takes into account whether the law enforcement animal dies and would increase the crime to a second-degree felony with a penalty of up to 10 years and a $25,000 fine.
“Right now the law treats the taunting or the teasing of a canine officer exactly the same way as it treats someone who tortures or murders a canine officer as in Rocco’s situation,” Smith said. “So we feel like the torture or murder of a canine officer deserves a much harsher penalty than under the current state of the law.”
Eight-year-old K-9 Officer Rocco succumbed to his injuries last Thursday after police say he was stabbed by 21-year-old fugitive John Rush.
Allegheny County has mourned the loss of Rocco, posting photos online of their own animals with notes for the fallen officer, flags around the county were lowered to half-staff.
All of Allegheny County’s senators are co-sponsoring the bill, which will be introduced this week.
Though the passing of this legislation would not affect Rush, Smith hopes it will help prevent a similar tragedy.
“Hopefully by making the penalties much stiffer, we’ll be able to prevent this from occurring in the future,” Smith said. “But in the event that we can’t prevent it from occurring in the future, we’ll be able to bring the full force of Pennsylvania law against a perpetrator, which is not currently the law in place.”
Smith said he has not yet spoken to Rocco’s handler, Officer Phil Lerza because he wants to respect his grieving process, but he plans to do so in the future.
He said the legislation would make sure that Rocco did not die in vain and that his legacy will live on.
“Calling it Rocco’s Law, remembering the service that Rocco provided to the community, and being able to sort of highlight his sacrifice as a way to make the law better and certainly to make it stronger against perpetrators who commit such a vicious crime,” Smith said.
While Senator Smith is looking to change Pennsylvania law, a petition has been submitted to the White House's "We the People" web site "to change all federal and state laws regarding K9 officers and the legal ramifications of killing a K9 officer."