April 15, 2024

At least 6 US states are considering tougher penalties for killing police dogs

FILE - New York Police officers of the Emergency Service Canine patrol with a dog, March 22, 2023, in New York. Kansas legislators are moving to impose tougher prison sentences for harming or killing police dogs, and the measure has bipartisan support despite questions elsewhere over how the animals are used in law enforcement. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, File)

By JOHN HANNA and DAVID A. LIEB Associated Press
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Lawmakers in at least six states are considering longer prison sentences or bigger fines for harming or killing police dogs, and the idea has bipartisan support despite questions about how the animals are used and a fraught history.
In Kansas on Wednesday, the Republican-controlled House voted 107-4 to pass a bill sponsored by its top leader to allow judges to sentence first-time offenders to five years in prison and mandate a fine of at least $10,000 for killing dogs used by police, arson investigators, game wardens or search and rescue teams, and for killing police horses. Those crimes already are felonies, but the maximum prison sentence is one year; the maximum fine is $5,000, and the law does not specifically cover horses.
Two days ago, Colorado’s Democratic-dominated House voted 52-12 for a measure that would require people convicted of aggravated cruelty to a law enforcement animal to also pay a minimum fine of $2,000 and reimburse an agency for its costs in caring for the animal or replacing it. They already face a prison sentence of up to six years.
And Monday, the GOP-controlled Missouri House gave its initial approval to legislation that would increase the penalties for harming dogs and horses used by law enforcement, with a final vote expected next week. The penalty for severely injuring or killing an animal is up to four years in prison, and the bill would make it up to seven years.
Similar bills have been filed this year in Democratic-led Hawaii and in GOP-leaning South Carolina and West Virginia.
In South Carolina, GOP Gov. Henry McMaster mentioned Rico, a police dog who died along with fallen police, firefighters and paramedics, during his State of the State address after attending the dog’s funeral in October.
“When Rico had his funeral, I’ve never seen so many people at the police academy. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” McMaster said, after becoming a little emotional when he paused at Rico’s name.
But in Missouri, Black lawmakers have raised concerns about the legislation, suggesting it could be too broadly applied.
“Historically, police animals have been used to affect and, quite frankly, harass marginalized communities,” Democratic Rep. LaKeySha Bosley of St. Louis said during Monday’s debate.
A final vote in the Missouri House will determine whether the bill goes to the Senate. The measures in Colorado and Kansas went to their senates.
The federal government and other states have acted on the issue. Under a 2000 federal law, a person who kills a police dog can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. In 2019, the possible penalty in Florida increased from up to five years in prison to up to 15 years. Tennessee increased its penalties in 2022, and Kentucky did so last year.
Supporters of the tougher penalties argue that the animals cost thousands of dollars to obtain and train, are vital to protecting the public and are like family both to the officers who work with them and their relatives.
In a Kansas House committee hearing earlier this month, Tyler Brooks, a sheriff’s deputy in the Wichita area, paid tribute to Bane, an 8-year-old dog who died in November.
“It’s kind of funny to me that this very large dog who frequently broke things and knocked everything over during a training session would be the one that would be the one that would break my 7-year-old autistic son of his crippling fear of dogs,” Brooks told the committee.
Authorities say a suspect in a domestic violence case took refuge in a storm drain and strangled Bane when a deputy sent the dog in to flush out the suspect.
The dog’s death inspired the Kansas measure, and House Speaker Dan Hawkins immediately dubbed it “Bane’s Law” after Wednesday’s vote. Hawkins is a Wichita Republican who is sponsoring the bill along with the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee’s chair.
During the Colorado House debate Monday, rural Republican Rep. Ryan Armagost stood beside Majority Leader Monica Duran, a Denver-area Democrat, to promote that state’s measure.
“It is a huge hit on every agency to lose an animal that’s part of their team. So, I encourage everyone to get behind this, support this, protect those that protect us,” Armagost said.
But injuries caused by police dogs have made headlines.
In rural Ohio in July 2023, a police dog bit a Black truck driver severely enough that he needed hospital treatment after the man was on his knees with his hands in the air.
The Salt Lake City police department suspended its dog apprehension program in 2020 after a Black man was bitten and an audit found 27 dog bite cases during the previous two years. And the same year, a Black man in Lafayette, Indiana, was placed in a medically induced coma after police dogs mauled him as he was arrested in a battery case.
During Tuesday’s debate in the Kansas House, Democratic Rep. Ford Carr, of Wichita, one of six Black members, mentioned the Ohio case and recalled how during the Civil Rights Movement, authorities turned dogs on peaceful Black protesters.
Carr also suggested the Wichita suspect was defending himself.
“I don’t think that there’s any one of us here who would sit idly by and let an animal maul you without fighting back,” Carr said.