House rejects greater penalties for assaulting, killing police dogs, following emotional debate

The Missouri House has defeated a bill to increase penalties for assaulting or killing a law enforcement animal amid emotional debate led by black Democrats, who emphasized what they say those dogs represent to their communities.

Representative Robert Cornejo (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 1649 would increase those penalties as high as a class-C felony, which carries up to ten years in prison, for killing a police dog or injuring it to the extent it cannot continue to be used as a police dog.

The sponsor of House Bill 1649, St. Charles Republican Robert Cornejo, has offered similar legislation for several years.  He said the penalties for hurting or killing a police dog are too lenient.

“Even if you treat it as property, with the tens of thousands of dollars that are invested in this property I don’t think that the punishment should be the same as failing to return a library book that’s worth ten bucks.  I think this is something that is right-sizing the punishment,” said Cornejo.

The bill was given initial approval last week but only after many Democrats spoke against it saying that police dogs have, in the words of Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty (Kansas City), “been used as a weapon against black citizens.”

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

During debate before the vote whether to send the bill to the Senate, Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, (D-Ferguson) spoke with Cornejo about what police dogs meant to him.

“I can remember when I was in elementary school how much I would hate watching civil rights videos because of what they did with those dogs,” said Franks.

Some Republicans also talked about issues they had with the legislation.  Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) said under HB 1649 the penalties for killing or disabling a police dog would be greater than those for second degree rape or assaulting a person in a nursing home.  He also said the bill leaves no room for self-defense against a police dog and does not account for incidents in which a dog might be used improperly by police.

“This piece of legislation does not allow me to stand my ground against a police dog,” said Dogan.  “It is the irony of all ironies that those of us who support the Second Amendment would say that I have a right to self-defense, that I have a right to use deadly force against other people when I believe that my life is in jeopardy from them, but if I’m being charged at by a police dog then that right just goes away and I have to take whatever that dog is going to give me.”

Some Republicans said the issues that were raised caused them to change from favoring the bill in last week’s vote to opposing it.  Rolla Republican Keith Frederick told Beatty the legislation needs to be reconsidered.

Representative Shamed Dogan (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications

“I think if I were in the African American community and hearing the discussion that you’ve done today, I would very much be saying to myself, ‘You know, this is not good optics, for sure; it’s not a good perception,’” said Frederick.

The vote on the bill was 73-68, short of the 82 needed to send it to the Senate.  Cornejo noted that there were 14 members absent for that vote and said the bill could be brought up again for consideration, or that the issue should still receive attention.

“I think if we had full attendance the bill would’ve passed,” said Cornejo.  “I know, speaking with somebody already since the vote, there may be a motion to [reconsider] or we could revisit this issue as an amendment on the floor in the future.”

Beatty said she was, “a little bit,” surprised that the bill failed.

“I was very impressed by the fact that folks actually listened,” said Beatty.  “I don’t think when we did the perfection [vote] that people understood the deep-seeded anguish that people felt over this particular bill, particularly when we were basically saying that animal’s life takes precedent.”

Democrats also called for other bills dealing with police matters to be advanced.

“Until we face this issue head-on and look at the legislation that’s out there and really deal with the issue little pieces like this are not going to fix it and there’s going to be unintended consequences,” said Beatty.