Memorial service is Friday for police dog Rocco

Legislators push for stiffer jail time

The stabbing death of a Pittsburgh police canine prompted two Pennsylvania state senators Friday to call for stiffer penalties for those accused of killing a law enforcement animal.

If convicted of a third-degree felony for slaying Rocco, 21-year-old John Rush, formerly of McKees Rocks, could face 31/2 to 7 years in prison under current state law.

Sens. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, and Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, would like to see that crime rise to the level of a second-degree felony and carry a prison sentence of seven to 10 years. They plan to circulate a co-sponsorship memo for a bill that will be known as "Rocco's Law."

"Current Pa. law treats someone who taunts or teases a police dog in the same manner as someone who kills or mutilates a police dog," said Mr. Smith. "We've got to distinguish between that and what happened to Rocco, and that will be the thrust of this legislation."

The legislators disclosed their plans hours after Pittsburgh police announced that they will hold a service Friday commemorating the 8-year-old German shepherd that died after he was stabbed while trying to apprehend a fugitive who police said injured human officers.

"This particular incident hits home, especially when you have a dog that's a hero. In this case, he saved the life of a police officer," said Mr. Ferlo.

The bill is being co-sponsored by all of the state senators from Allegheny County, both Republican and Democrat, Mr. Smith said.

"Hopefully, the change, if we're successful, will act as a preventative measure so something like this tragedy never happens again, but if a tragedy like this does happen again, we have to bring the full weight of Pennsylvania law against any individual that acts like this," he said.

Mr. Ferlo said the death of Rocco was a frequent topic of conversation when people visited his Pittsburgh office Friday. The senator said he hopes to attend the dog's memorial service next week.

Friday morning, Pittsburgh police officers will gather at the bureau's canine training academy on Washington Boulevard in Highland Park to form a processional.

About 10 a.m., they will guide the dog's remains to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland for a service expected to last from about 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Among other ceremonies, the venue previously hosted the funeral service for Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson and the body of the first American soldier slain during World War I.

Many details of Rocco's services -- such as whether he will be cremated or buried -- are still being determined. His handler, Officer Phil Lerza, has asked that the service be closed to the public.

Similar services across the country have sometimes drawn up to hundreds of K-9 officers and their partners, said Chris Cosgriff, founder of the Officer Down Memorial Page, which collects information about human and K-9 officers killed in action.

Rocco's death at knifepoint was the second potentially felonious canine death in the country this year, Mr. Cosgriff said. A police dog in North Carolina was shot and killed earlier this month.

The exact number of police canines killed in action each year is unclear. The FBI keeps statistics on human officers killed in the line of duty but does not keep a count on canine officers. That matter "will be discussed during our law enforcement advisory process later this year," FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer said.

Mr. Cosgriff learns of canine deaths when departments across the nation reach out to him. Last year, he noted 18 police canine deaths that occurred in the line of duty. Six were killed by gunfire and the others died as the result of accidents.

Their deaths, some say, provide another reminder of how hard it can be to protect the canine officers. Vests can protect against some, but not all, types of bullets and knives, but also present their own logistical challenges, said Russ Hess, national executive director of the United States Police Canine Association.

"These officers rely on their K-9 officers to protect them and yet there's only so much they can do to protect the dogs. They can't draw their own weapons," said John McCabe, president and CEO of Soldiers & Sailors, which waived its rental fee for Rocco's service.

Services for slain humans, he said, are always emotional. Rocco's, however, "is so much more moving because it is somewhat of a helpless creature that we rely on and put in harm's way to protect us."

Anyone wishing to make a donation to help the city pay Rocco's medical bills can make a donation through the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union, 1338 Chartiers Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15220, by mail or by calling 412-922-4800. Checks and money orders can be made out to "Rocco Medical Fund."

Liz Navratil: Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: Lexi Belculfine contributed. First Published January 31, 2014 3:14 PM

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