The Cass County Sheriff’s Office K-9, who was wounded last month on the job, met Gov. Eric Greitens on Wednesday at the KCPD Academy amid a push in Jefferson City to strengthen penalties for assaulting law-enforcement animals.
Champ has become the poster child — er, dog — for Missouri House Bill 1649, which is sponsored by Rep. Robert Cornejo, a Republican from St. Peters, Mo., and would increase penalties for injuring or killing law-enforcement animals.
It’s clear after the meeting, which included Champ’s handler, Cass County Deputy Stephen Valentich, and Cass County Sheriff Jeff Weber, that Champ has a fan in Greitens, whose appearance in town went under the radar as he remains embroiled in scandal.
“We need to strengthen Missouri’s laws,” Greitens said in a release issued by the Cass County Sheriff’s Office. “These K-9s do incredible work on behalf of our people. They are trained, tough dogs, and they help keep Missourians safe. There’s a bill to do that working its way through the legislature now. It’s called ‘Champ’s Law,’ and it’s a bill I support.”
Weber, who will be in Jefferson City on Thursday to testify before the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee has been among the most vocal proponents of the bill.
HB 1649 was approved Tuesday by the Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee and advanced to the full Missouri House of Representatives.
“I am encouraged by the amount of support this bill is getting from across the state,” said Weber, who will travel to Jefferson City and testify before on Thursday. “I look forward to working with all of our legislators to see that this bill becomes law.”
Weber also testified earlier this month before the Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee in support of the bill.
“My concern and outrage for the minimum penalty imposed on someone for stabbing a law enforcement K-9 was echoed throughout our community and required my action,” Weber said in a statement released at the time by the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.
Champ was stabbed in the neck Dec. 11 while helping Harrisonville police search for a subject suspected of stealing from Walmart.
He and Valentich pursued the suspect — later identified as Zachary T. Wilbanks, 17, of Harrisonville — into a field before Valentich lost sight of the suspect and Champ.
Valentich later heard a bark and a yelp before Champ returned.
The suspect was apprehended, but the deputy later noticed blood covering the kennel area of his patrol car and found a wound to the dog’s neck. A veterinarian in Raymore tended to the 1.5-inch knife wound, and Champ was sent home with his handler to rest.
Champ returned to duty Jan. 8.
“Champ is a fighter,” Greitens said in a statement from his office. “He’s recovered from his wounds, and he’s back on duty. We’re grateful for him and for the men and women of law enforcement.”
The day Champ was injured, Wilbanks was charged with resisting arrest and with assault on a police animal. Court records indicate Wilbanks was staying at the Crittendon Children’s Center in south Kansas City, which tends to mental and behavioral issues of adolescents.
Wilbanks was released on his own recognizance, but he failed to appear at a scheduled court hearing on Jan. 2, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. The warrant was still active Tuesday, and Wilbanks remained a fugitive.
The state charge of resisting arrest is a Class A misdemeanor, but assault on a law enforcement animal is a lesser Class C misdemeanor.
That would change under the proposed new law, which counts Rep. Donna Pfautsch of Harrisonville among its four co-sponsors.
Wilbanks faces up to 15 days in jail and a fine of $700 for allegedly stabbing Champ, but if the bill is passed he might face up to one year in jail and a fine of $2,000, beginning Aug. 28.
If an attack kills or incapacitates a police dog, the suspect would face at least three and possibly 10 years behind bars under HB 1649, which bumps the penalty from a Class E felony up to a Class C felony.