Mike DeBernardo, KSL TV
A photo of Unified Police Department K-9 Dingo, a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois, who was killed in the line of duty. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to buy and train a police service dog, but their public service is ultimately invaluable. A new bill aims to protect police service animals by sharply increasing penalties for those who kill them.

SALT LAKE CITY — It costs tens of thousands of dollars to buy and train a police service dog, but their public service is ultimately invaluable. A new bill aims to protect police service animals by sharply increasing penalties for those who kill them.

SB57, sponsored by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, would increase the severity of the offense of killing a police service animal from a third-degree felony to a second-degree felony.

Injuring a K-9 would remain a third-degree felony, but the bill would adjust the existing language in the law from "intentionally" harming a police animal to "intentionally and knowingly" injuring a police animal in order to assist prosecutors.

Iwamoto says she wants to amend the law after two Unified police dogs were recently killed in the line of duty. Dingo, a Belgian Malinois, was killed last summer attempting to grab hold of a suspect who pulled a gun and fired several shots. Another police service dog named Aldo was also killed by gunfire in 2016.

Iwamoto said she was moved last summer when she attended an event at Millcreek Community Center honoring these dogs and the officers who handled them.

In a letter addressed to Utah lawmakers, Unified Police Lt. Chad Reyes, who was Dingo's handler for five years, endorses the senator's bill and says the law should be changed that currently says killing a police service dog is a third-degree felony.

"In my opinion," Reyes wrote, "that level of offense is not commensurate with the egregiousness of the act. Merely by comparing the crime of killing a police service animal to the crime of theft of services valued over $5,000, which is a second-degree felony, the disparity is obvious."

It costs an average of $9,000 for an untrained 18- to 24-month-old service dog, according to the letter. Once fully trained, a dog with no health problems "could easily be sold for $30,000.00 to $50,000.00," Reyes wrote in the letter.

But the lion's share of monetary value comes in what the dogs are able to do for the police department. Between the years of 2012 and 2014, Dingo alone assisted in 109 felony arrests, 152 narcotic searches, and 165 human searches, which resulted in many pounds of narcotics being taken off the streets and the seizure of $43,601.00 in cash assets, according to Reyes.

The lieutenant added that he can't put a specific monetary value on all the statistics of the K-9 unit listed in his letter. "But quite frankly, maybe the community could put a value on that. Those are criminals and drugs and lost children, lost elderly parents. How do you put a monetary note on that?" he said.

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Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, is sponsoring the bill in the House. In August 2017, another police service dog named Tess was wounded in the line of duty in St. George but survived. Iwamoto said she is hopeful for broad bipartisan support for her bill.

In Utah, a third-degree felony is punishable by a maximum sentence of zero to five years in prison and a possible fine of up to $5,000. A second-degree felony is punishable by a maximum of one to 15 years in prison and a possible fine of up to $10,000.