NewsCovering Colorado


Bill that would provide more protections for police K-9s, horses progresses in Colorado Senate Monday

"When K-9 Graffit from our agency was killed in the line of duty last year, a cost analysis was completed for his working life… The result was over $100,000."
jefferson county sheriff's office K-9 graffit
Posted at 5:26 PM, Mar 19, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-19 19:26:42-04

DENVER — A bill that would modify the Class 4 felony of aggravated cruelty to animals to include law enforcement animals progressed in the Colorado Senate on Monday afternoon.

House Bill 24-1074, "Aggravated Cruelty to Law Enforcement Animals," specifies that a person has committed the offense of aggravated cruelty to animals if they knowingly or recklessly kill or cause serious harm to a law enforcement animal, namely a K-9 or police horse. Under current law, aggravated cruelty to animals is a Class 4 felony, but cruelty to a service animal or certified police working dog or horse is a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Under this bill, any person who knowingly kills or causes serious bodily injury to a law enforcement animal that results in death will face the Class 4 felony. This also applies in cases where the animal is injured and removed from active duty for at least three months.

This bill would not prevent a person from using physical force against a police animal to defend themselves or another person if they believe the situation includes unreasonable or excessive force.

In the past three years, seven people have been sentenced for the crime of cruelty to a service or police animal — or about 2% of all animal cruelty sentences, according to the bill's fiscal note.

HB24-1074 passed on the third reading in the House of Representatives on Feb. 12 and was introduced in the Senate the following day, where it was then passed along to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That hearing began on Monday afternoon with a brief introduction from primary sponsors Sen. Joann Ginal and Sen. Bob Gardner.

Sen. Ginal explained that law enforcement animals are highly trained — something that requires immense time and money — and their loss is monumental.

“The injury or death of a law enforcement animal results in significant setbacks in crime detection or deterrence," she said. “These animals are really part of the law enforcement team. So, House Bill 1074 expands the definition to include any animal used by law enforcement to protect the public.”

Multiple witnesses spoke during the hearing, including Zach Oliver, handler of Jefferson County Sheriff's Office's K-9 Graffit, who was killed on Feb. 13, 2023 as Jefferson County deputies responded to help the Golden Police Department locate an armed suspect in a wooded area near the Colorado School of Mines campus. The man had allegedly pointed a gun at officers while fleeing.

“K9 Graffit located the suspect hiding behind a tree down an embankment about 100 yards away from the student housing units," Oliver said. "That suspect could have kept running away but instead he was waiting for us with his gun ready. Graffit took a bullet, directly to the heart — a bullet that was meant for me or one of my partners."

In the aftermath, Oliver recalled learning Colorado has "very lenient, almost non-existent" charges related to the killing of a police K-9.

"That was a hard pill to swallow — that my best friend, my partner, my family member was killed and pretty much goes unnoticed," Oliver said. "I don’t think people understand how important and valuable these K-9s are to our community.”

He described how the animals are not easily replaceable, and the months upon months of preparation, planning and training for him to get back on the streets with his new K-9, named Ragnar. In total, he didn't return to his official post for eight months, he said.

"K-9 Graffit was so much more than just a dog," he said. "He was a member of the community and a member of my family. Graffit was with me all the time. He went to work with me each day and came home with me each night.”

Over the span of about two and a half years, he recorded more than 640 documented hours of training with Graffit, he said.

After K-9 Graffit's death, Jeffco deputy finds healing working with a new K-9

The suspect in that case has pleaded not guilty. His trial is expected to begin in April.

Oliver's coworker Jim Valbert also spoke in front of the committee Monday. The deputy said he has been in law enforcement for about 35 years, with 25 as a K-9 handler.

He detailed the process of procuring a law enforcement animal: First, selective breeding takes place, typically in European countries, Valbert said. The young dogs are evaluated for drive, temperament and courage. Once they reach maturity, they are shipped to the United States, where additional testing is done and a K-9 is selected for an agency. A handler will meet their K-9 and they both head to a six-week academy out of state where they build a strong bond. The duo then returns to Colorado and begins a 12-week academy here. Once that is complete, the team is tested and if successful, is certified and can begin patrols.

Valbert said the agency technically owns the K-9, but the dog lives with its handler and their family.

Over a K-9's life, there are thousands of hours of training, vet bills and food costs, he said.

"When K-9 Graffit from our agency was killed in the line of duty last year, a cost analysis was completed for his working life… The result was over $100,000," he said. "These incredible working K-9s deserve appropriate laws as they serve citizens and protect officers."

The grief that Oliver, his family and the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office struggled through in the wake of K-9 Graffit's death was felt by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office as well, which suffered a similar loss in 2022. Ronnie Hancock and Julie Hancock both described the heartache of losing K-9 Jinx.

On April 11, 2022, Ronnie Hancock and K-9 Jinx responded to a call where a man had reportedly brandished a weapon and was causing a disturbance in Manitou Springs.

"During the height of the altercation, I made the difficult decision to deploy Jinx to give myself and three other deputies a few extra seconds to maneuver safely and gain ground on the suspect," Ronnie Hancock said. "The suspect pulled out his weapon and fired two rounds. Jinx was hit and killed instantly... And at that moment, our agency lost a force multiplier and a protector. And I lost my partner. I can’t even begin to tell you about the bond that was shattered that evening. The trust a handler and his K-9 build and have with each other is indescribable."

Afterward, the agency had a noticeable impact in its operational capabilities, he said.

His wife also spoke and recalled the night she learned K-9 Jinx had been killed. Julie Hancock remembered telling her husband that the dog's death was not his fault. They spent the night at the veterinarian, not wanting to leave the beloved K-9, who had become part of their family.

"They shared a bond most K-9 teams would envy," she said of her husband.

Witnesses from other agencies also spoke on Monday afternoon in support of the bill.

Roland Halpern, executive director of Colorado Voters for Animals, explained that law enforcement animals can smell explosives, find concealed drugs, locate hidden suspects or kidnapped victims, find flash drives, and search for people, both alive and deceased.

"Those skills take months of training and constant retraining and certification to update and maintain the experience and expertise these animals have," he said. "Their keen senses, such as hearing and smell, compliment the expertise of their human partners, making the duo super-human."

Deputy Ian Austin with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the Colorado Police Canine Association (CPCA), attended Monday's hearing with his partner K-9 Nyx, an explosive detection dog.

"This bill makes the important distinction that law enforcement animals are more than just pets," he said. "It recognizes that these animals are bred, raised and perform at a high level and receive significant amounts of training and care to ensure peak performance."

Austin said the cost of a police K-9 alone is $7K to $20K, plus the cost of initial training, which ranges from $36K to $96K.

Richard Anselmi with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the Colorado Mounted Law Enforcement Association, said police horses undergo similar training and certifications as K-9s, though they are used in different capacities. Police horses are mostly used for community policing and community patrols, and Anselmi cited studies that showed officers on horseback are more visible than those on foot or in cars, and this can help lower crime and improve community trust.

Clover Street, owner of Colorado-based MarathonK9 Academy LLC, and Jeremy Schupbach with the Colorado Municipal League also spoke in support of the bill.

The bill passed in the hearing on a vote of 5-0, and was referred unamended to the Senate floor.

Previously, House Bill 23-1286, titled "Increase Penalty Cruelty Police And Service Animals," was signed into law on June 2, 2023. It modified the penalties for second and any subsequent convictions for cruelty and aggravated cruelty to both animals and service animals. Offenders must pay a minimum fine of $1,000 and complete an anger management treatment program, or other appropriate program, for second or subsequent charges of aggravated cruelty to animals. This fee is doubled to $2,000 if the crime is against a service animal, a certified police working dog or police working horse. The treatment program also applies to these cases.