JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Following the killing of a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office K-9 in the line of duty early Sunday morning, advocates are calling for tougher penalties for those convicted of the crime.
JSO says K-9 Officer Fang was shot in the head and killed on the Westside, near I-10 and Cecil Commerce Parkway, while chasing 17-year-old Jhamel Paskel, who was suspected in an armed carjacking. Investigators said another police dog helped catch Paskel, who was arrested near where a 9mm handgun was found. JSO said he admitted to shooting Fang.
Paskel is charged with two counts of armed robbery, two counts of kidnapping and one count of harming a K-9 officer.
It's the charge for killing Fang that has K-9 advocates calling for Florida law to be changed so the penalty for anyone convicted of the crime is more serious.
Currently, it's a 3rd degree felony that carries up to five years in prison, but Debbie Johnson, founder of the non-profit K9s United, argues the crime deserves more time behind bars.
"He (Fang) made the ultimate sacrifice to help keep our community safe. How can you not honor and respect that?" Johnson asked. "They are officers. They should be treated as an officer."
Monday evening, the News4Jax I-TEAM learned that Johnson started a petition on Change.org to change the law in Florida.
Johnson said she realized her passion for wanting to help K-9 officers and their handlers in 2014 while watching news reports following the line-of-duty killing of K-9 Officer Baron. Baron, who was a member of the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, was intentionally drowned by a man he was chasing. It's a day Baron's handler will never forget.
"I performed CPR on him all the way to the animal ER, but it was all in vain. He was already gone," said retired St. Johns County Deputy and K-9 Handler Farrah Ashe. "I lost him, my best friend. That was tough. It's like losing a child."
Johnson was moved by the tragedy suffered by Ashe and the entire police K-9 community, and has been advocating and fundraising for the needs of K-9 units around the country ever since.
She said a 3rd degree felony for those who intentionally take the life of a police K-9 isn't enough. Johnson wants the charge to be a 2nd or even 1st degree felony, which can result in a life sentence.
"Because if a criminal will kill a police K-9, there is no doubt in my mind that they will do the same to a human," she said.
Jacksonville attorney and former prosecutor Randy Reep said the penalties are stricter in other states, like Utah, but said pushback could come from people calling it cruel and unusual punishment.
"Do you really want to incarcerate people for 15 years or life because they harmed an animal?" asked Reep. "There are cases where police dogs have died through the negligence of their handlers who in fact haven’t been charged with a crime at all. So just be careful, sometimes, what you wish for, because you might in fact get it."
In order for there to be a change in the charge associated with harming a K9 officer, state lawmakers will need to make the change in Tallahassee, something Johnson said she will be contacting lawmakers to try to do.
K-9s KILLED IN THE LINE OF DUTY: K9s United Tribute Wall
In the meantime, if Paskel is convicted of killing K-9 Officer Fang, he may face a harsher punishment than five years in prison because of the other charges he faces involving the armed carjacking and fleeing police.