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Hamburg seventh-graders seek tougher penalties for hurting, killing police dogs

A lot of barking and whining emanated from the chambers of the Erie County Legislature Thursday morning. But this time, the noise was coming from dogs, not county lawmakers or administrators.

Two K-9 police dogs, their handlers and Sheriff Timothy B. Howard joined 14 seventh-graders from Hamburg Middle School to encourage county lawmakers to support a state bill bumping up the penalties for injuring or killing service animals in law enforcement. That would include K-9 police dogs and horses used by mounted police and deputies.

Seventh-grader Julia Blasio referenced "Mitchell's Law," named for a Jamestown Police Department K-9 Officer Mitchell, who was stabbed in the throat and neck after confronting a murder suspect in November. Mitchell, a German shepherd, eventually recovered and returned to duty.

State Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, sponsored a bill that passed in the State Senate in March. Students of Hamburg social studies teacher Jason Steinagle traveled to Albany to meet with state Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, who was one of the bill co-sponsors, as well as state Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma. More importantly, the students met Mitchell.

The bill elevates injuries to police service animals from misdemeanors to felonies. It also raises the felony level for anyone who kills a police service animal.

On Thursday, the students appeared at the Legislature's Government Affairs Committee, where Chairman Kevin Hardwick offered a helpful primer on how to address the committee. He and other legislators then listened to the students and put them to the test, asking a series of friendly questions about their request for support.

Ayden Link, 13, said he was "shocked" at how nice all the legislators were when the students presented their request for support to get Mitchell's law passed in the Assembly.

"I expected a lot more yelling," he said.

The Legislature is expected to approve a supporting resolution, sponsored by Legislator Lynne Dixon.

Most of the noise Thursday came from two K-9s who were present. Sheriff's Deputy Brett Casey periodically walked his K-9, Drago, in and out of Legislature chambers because the K-9 couldn't understand why he was just standing around instead of working. Drago specializes in explosive detection and tracking.

Howard estimated that Erie County has 13 police dogs, owned by the county, and a dozen horses that are privately owned. None have been seriously injured or killed during Howard's tenure as sheriff. Nationally, five K-9s have died in the line of duty so far this year, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page website, though only one died directly at the hands of a suspect.

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