JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Moments before Florida's governor put pen to paper Wednesday morning to toughen the penalty for harming a police, fire or search and rescue animal in the line of duty, emotion could be heard in every word spoken by those credited with changing the law.
Currently, the crime is a third-degree felony, carrying a sentence of up to five years. But, with Wednesday's signing of the K-9 Fang bill into law, it will become a second-degree felony punishable with up to 15 years in prison.
The bill is named after Jacksonville Sheriff's Office K-9 Fang. The four-legged officer was shot and killed in the line of duty Sept. 30, 2018. Police said the 17-year-old carjacking suspect Fang was chasing pulled the trigger -- putting a bullet in Fang's head,
"Today is very humbling for me and for my family," said Fang's handler, JSO Officer Matt Herrera, while speaking right before Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill.
Standing before a crowd at the Capitol with lawmakers and law enforcement behind him, Herrera shared his final memories with his faithful partner.
"Just like every time, (I) pulled Fang out the door, ‘Go get ‘em buddy,’ and that was the last thing I said to him."
Fang was in pursuit of 17-year-old Jhamel Paskel, who was suspected of carjacking two women from the 7-Eleven on Lem Turner Road. Herrera said officers were able to track the car through OnStar, and once it was disabled, Paskel took off running.
"(Fang) went out of my sight, doing what he loved, going to get the bad guy, and three gunshots rang out, followed by a yelp from my dog. And that was the last noise he ever made," Herrera shared.
Just days after Fang's shooting death, an I-TEAM investigation revealed Florida law would only allow the suspected shooter to serve up to five years in prison if convicted. At the forefront was K9s United founder Debbie Johnson, who was starting an online petition to toughen state law. We contacted Sen. Aaron Bean (R, Jacksonvillle) with what we learned and he vowed to file a bill try to increase the penalty.
Johnson is now credited with rallying statewide support for Bean's bill and following it through the entire legislative process until the final vote was cast.
"We would not be here today without the hard work of Debbie and her care and concern -- not only for our law enforcement officers but for their four-legged friends, both K-9s and horses," said Rep. Cord Byrd (R, Jacksonville Beach).
"She (Debbie Johnson) is not just a concerned citizen, she made this happen," added Herrera.
"So today, we are going to take steps to make sure that if you do harm an animal, whether it be a K-9 officer or a horse – don’t forget horses, they’re here as well – that you will be held accountable for your actions," said Bean.
“These dogs love to work and they are so loyal.And they would literally sacrifice their life to keep us safe. How can you not honor that?” asked Johnson. "The passing of this bill says that we stand behind these loyal and brave four-legged officers. It says that we value their service in keeping our community safe.".
"I hope this bill never has to get used, but I can tell your right now, that (with) the penalty being stiffer, I hope it will make somebody think twice before they put another bullet in another K-9’s head," Herrera said.
The K-9 Fang bill goes into effect Oct. 1.
As for Fang's suspected shooter, he's still being held without bond. His trial date has not been set.