Pittsburgh-area lawmakers want stiffer K-9 penalty

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PITTSBURGH (AP) – State senators from the Pittsburgh area plan to co-sponsor a bill that would stiffen penalties for those who severely injure or kill police animals after a city police dog died from being stabbed last week.

State Sen. Matt Smith, D-Allegheny, said the bill would make such conduct a second-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The move comes in the wake of the death of Rocco, a Pittsburgh police dog who died of a stab wound on Thursday. A homeless fugitive jailed on charges he stabbed the animal while resisting arrest, 21-year-old John Rush, faces up to seven years in prison under the state’s current law, a third-degree felony.

Smith and the other lawmakers want the state to catch up to federal law, which imposes a maximum 10-year sentence and $1,000 fine for killing a police animal.

“It is an injustice that Pennsylvania’s law lags behind the federal standard in terms of maximum prison time,” Smith said.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny, a former city council president, said the death of Rocco, “a dog that put his life on the line to protect his partner for five years, should spur us to action in Harrisburg.”

The bill has bi-partisan support. State Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, said the close ties police dogs develop with their handlers, who bring their dogs home to live with them, justify a stiffer penalty.

“The dog the officer works with becomes a part of his family both on the job and at home,” Vulakovich said. “We can put no price on the loyalty and love that dog has for the officer he works with every day.”

The dog’s handler, Officer Phil Lerza, is recovering from a stab wound to the shoulder suffered during the same arrest. Rush faces up to 20 years each if convicted of attacking Lerza and three other officers who suffered lesser injuries while struggling to subdue Rush, police said.

The dog’s funeral will be public Friday at the city’s Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s foundation is making arrangements to help the city pay to replace Rocco.

The foundation helps police departments buy and train dogs. The city spends $6,500 to $8,000 to purchase an untrained dog and can spend tens of thousands of dollars honing its abilities.

Jessica Duffaut, the relationship manager for Roethlisberger’s foundation, wouldn’t discuss how much the charity might give city police, but said she expects an announcement in the coming days. The foundation has donated more than $1 million to police departments since 2006.

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