A D.C. councilman moved Tuesday to toughen penalties against people who kill or maim animals working for law enforcement or the fire department, an effort that he said would align the District more closely with federal law.
"They are more than just a pet," said Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, who introduced his proposal Tuesday during a D.C. Council session. "They're very, very valuable tools for policing and public safety. It's such a loss to us for one of these dogs to be taken out of service."
Wells' proposal, which attracted widespread support among lawmakers, could lead to prison sentences of 10 years for people who deliberately harm a police animal and cause its death, disability or disfiguration.
The penalties, which are similar to those included in a 2000 federal law, would also apply to people convicted of intentionally hurting dogs working with the DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.
The District does not have any existing laws on the books specifically targeting mistreatment of those animals, and city officials said a person suspected of targeting one would likely face only a cruelty to animals charge -- which has a maximum sentence of 180 days in jail.
Marie Drissel, the civic activist Wells credited with spurring his interest in the issue, said she raised concerns because she thought the District's laws were too weak.
"It's an unnecessary gaping hole in the law," said Drissel, who attended an event earlier this month honoring police dogs. "It needs to be cleaned up."
If the District acts, it would join more than 20 states in making such a crime a felony.
Kevin Johnson, president of the United States Police Canine Association, welcomed the proposal.
"That is outstanding and wonderful because we've lost a lot of dogs through the years," said Johnson, a police officer in Wilson, N.C. "If they can pass it, that'd be fantastic."
And D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray's spokesman said the administration was interested in backing Wells' measure.
"It's sounds like something that has merit," said Pedro Ribeiro, who added Gray would consult with Police Chief Cathy Lanier about the proposal.
Lanier's spokeswoman declined to comment because the department had not yet reviewed the legislation.