D.C. Council: Harming police animal may result in felony

(WJLA) - The D.C. Council is considering legislation that would make it a felony to harm a police animal. If convicted, the felony could result in up to ten years in prison.

In Washington, M.P.D. uses dogs and horses, for various assignments. Police and animal rights advocates strongly support this proposal.

D.C. Police Union Chairman Kristopher Baumann said, “I think it's a great idea. Saying, look, here's a specific offense, so everybody's clear that if you do this, there's going to be enormous consequences and that's how you deter criminal behavior.”

Metropolitan Police say they follow strict protocol when deploying their K-9 units – including issuing warnings and pulling their dogs back when an arrest is imminent.

But in those same situations, suspects often don't play by the same rules. Sgt. Johnnie Walter said, “People will kick, try to stab them, choke them.”

This legislation aims to discourage that. It would make injuring a police dog or horse a felony, punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison. If the animal is permanently disabled or dies, the suspect could face ten years behind bars.

Police say these animals are worth that.

Sgt. Walter said, “A patrol dog is trained 14 to 16 weeks. You've got the handler's salary involved. You've got the cost of the initial dog. Vet care. So it all adds up in a hurry. I'd say probably $40,000 to $50,000 by the time one of those dogs is done.”

But some public defenders are urging the D.C. Council to reject the bill. They say the language of the proposed law is too broad.

For example, they want to know what constitutes "harm" to an animal.

Testifying at the hearing, Richard Gilbert, Co-Chair of the D.C. Assoc. Of Criminal Defense Lawyers asked, “Is it a criminal offense to bark at a dog who is inside a police cruiser or knock on the window? Is teasing an animal a criminal offense? Is running away from an animal a criminal offense?”

Opponents also argue that this legislation is redundant. They believe any suspect who attacks a police animal can already be charged with several other crimes that carry as much prison time upon conviction: cruelty to animals, malicious destruction of property, assault on a police officer.

Laura Hankins, Special Counsel for the D.C. Public Defender Service said, “This overlapping of criminal offenses and over-punishing a single criminal act leads to disparate treatment.”

Supporters of the legislation are not convinced those current statutes are appropriate or adequate for this crime.

They point to neighboring jurisdictions that have this specific provision for police animals. It is also found in federal law and 20 states across the country.