Feb. 2-Testimonies for a bill that would increase the punishment for hurting or killing a K-9 officer in the state of Missouri were heard in Jefferson City this week.
St. Joseph Police Department officer Lucas Winder testified before the state Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Monday.
Winder was partnered with K-9 officer Max, who joined the St. Joseph Police Department in February 2019. Winder and Max were called to serve a felony domestic abuse warrant at the end of June in 2021.
Police said Valdez William McDonald shot Max while he attempted to run away from officers.
"I attempted to rush Max down to Kansas City to seek medical care but unfortunately he succumbed to his wounds prior to arriving at the veterinarian," Winder said during the hearing.
Winder told News-Press NOW after Max's death that he considered Max one of his children.
"You could just tell our bond was there, unbreakable, beautiful. The kid was always there for me," Winder told News-Press NOW in 2021.
During the hearing, Winder testified in support of the bill.
"It was very apparent that these dogs are not only dogs: They're family, they're officers," said Winder at the hearing. "We're all in this together. So I feel that they're our partners and should be treated as much."
McDonald pleaded guilty to two charges, knowingly causing the death of a police animal and armed criminal action, in a Buchanan County courtroom. Circuit Judge Patrick Robb sentenced him to four years for the dog's death, the maximum allowed by law, and eight years on the armed criminal action charge, ordering the two terms to be served consecutively.
Currently, people can be charged with a class C misdemeanor, which could result in up to 15 days in jail with a fine of $700, for assault on a law enforcement animal. If the assault leads to the death or retirement of the animal, then the person faces a class E felony of up to four years in prison.
SB 189, sponsored by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, would change that.
"These animals put their lives on the line every day to protect the public and the law should protect them," said Luetkemeyer during his testimony supporting his bill.
If SB 189 is signed into law, assault on a law enforcement animal that does not require veterinary care would be elevated to a class A misdemeanor, which could bring up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
If the animal is seriously hurt and needs veterinary care, the act could be charged as a class E felony, which would result in up to four years in prison.
A person would face a class D felony for killing a law enforcement animal, which would lead to up to seven years in prison.
Buchanan County Sheriff's Deputy Vince Lippincott said he was working the night when Max died. Lippincott works with K-9 officer Shadow.
"Because you have that connection with yours, you know how tight it is with them. So yeah, it was..." Lippincott trailed off.
"I'm OK if I don't have to feel that again," Lippincott finished after a pause.
Lippincott said he believes handlers and their K-9s have a stronger relationship than with human police partners.
"He lives with me, and he goes to work with me every day," Lippincott said. "All day every day, I'm with him, so we form a bond and a friendship that's different than with a human. He has feelings, too, and it comes out with how we're working."
The bill would also expand the rule to cover all law enforcement animals, not just police animals.
"They are commissioned as law enforcement officers, and we need to be standing with our police officers, whether they're human police officers or whether they are K-9 officers," Luetkemeyer told News-Press NOW. "This legislation makes sure that that their role in the police department is adequately recognized and makes sure that they're being protected."
This is the second time Luetkemeyer has sponsored Max's Law. He brought it to the General Assembly last year as well. It passed through the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate during the final week due to congressional redistricting.
"I'm hoping to get it out of committee quickly, and get it on the floor and hopefully get it to the governor's desk," Luetkemeyer said.