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Funeral for slain police dog opened to public

Bob Bauder
| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 8:57 a.m.

A wave of sympathy over the fatal stabbing of a Pittsburgh police K-9 prompted the dog's handler to open Rocco's funeral to the public and legislators to develop proposals to stiffen penalties for killing a police dog.

Friday's 11 a.m. funeral for the 8-year-old German shepherd was initially closed at the request of Rocco's handler, Officer Phil Lerza.

“Due to the numerous calls and the overwhelming outpouring of concern and support from the public for canine officer Rocco, Officer Lerza and his family have asked that the funeral service ... be opened to the public,” police spokeswoman Diane Richard said in a statement.

Law enforcement officers and their families, public safety personnel and public officials will have priority for seating, Richard said. Doors for the funeral open at 10 a.m.

“The tremendous show of support has deeply touched the Lerza family and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police,” Richard said.

State Rep. Dom Costa of Stanton Heights and Sen. Matt Smith of Mt. Lebanon, both Democrats, each have proposed bills that would elevate the penalties for killing a dog from the current maximum of seven years in prison.

Costa said his bill would carry a maximum 20-year penalty.

A suspect would face up to 10 years under Smith's legislation, “Rocco's Law.” Six other local senators have signed on as co-sponsors.

“Hopefully, we can take this tragic incident and make the laws a little bit better to protect these dogs who sacrifice so much for us,” Smith said.

Costa, a former Pittsburgh police chief, said he considered proposing a mandatory 5-year prison sentence, but decided against it, thinking jurors might be reluctant to impose it.

“I've seen first-hand how dedicated these dogs are and what great work they really do,” he said. “This may not help Rocco now, obviously, but in his name, something has to be done so if this happens again, the next perpetrator will not see the light of day for a long time.”

Rocco died on Thursday, two days after a suspect stabbed him and Lerza in the basement of a Lawrenceville building.

John L. Rush, 21, of Stowe was charged with the assault.

City police were assisting Allegheny County sheriff's deputies, who were seeking Rush on bench warrants.

On Friday, a procession of canine officers will leave the police training academy on Washington Boulevard in Highland Park at 10 a.m. and go to the service at Soldiers and Sailors. The hall has a seating capacity of 2,550, police said.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@triweb.com.

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