SHINNSTON, W.Va. (WBOY) — A Shinnston officer is advocating for added rights for K-9 officers and hoping for a bill to update a law from the 1930s that will reclassify K-9 units as officers instead of equipment.
Shinnston Police officer Jon Harbert was featured on 304 Today’s First Responder Friday last week with his K-9 Bear. Bear was donated to the Shinnston Police Department almost four years ago and performs narcotics tracking and apprehension work and sometimes even search and rescue.
But as Harbert pointed out, despite K-9 Bear’s work and sacrifice for the community, he is not technically classified as an officer, meaning that if someone were to attack Bear, officers and handlers like Harbert could not legally defend the same way they do human officers.
“The dog is a tool, but it’s a living, breathing tool and it’s a process that we need to look at and look at closer. Just can’t start saying that these things don’t matter because the K-9 does matter,” Harbert said.
Harbert said he has worked with several delegates to try to change the West Virginia code relating to K-9s. House Bill 3326 was introduced in the West Virginia Legislature on Feb. 10, but it never passed the House Judiciary, according to the legislature’s website.
If passed in both the West Virginia House and Senate and signed by the governor, HB 3326 would have added “Police service canine” to the list of personnel included in §61-2-10b of the West Virginia state code and made assault or attacks against K-9 officers a felony crime.
“They’re a living, breathing thing and they deserve to be defended,” Harbert said. “Cause they’ll defend us with their lives and we should be able to do the same.”
Harbert said that medical facilities like WVU Medicine treat K-9s as officers and will fly them for treatment if they are injured.
“None of these animals ask to come into this line of work,” he said. “They have done it with their breeding and everything. And you should be able to defend them and not be able to have to sit back and watch somebody harm your canine.”
As of Saturday, March 11, the 2023 Legislative Session ended in West Virginia, which means that unless a special session is called, no new bills will be passed this year. The 2023 session did pass The Patrol Officer Cassie Marie Johnson Memorial Act, which stiffens penalties for anyone who willfully causes the death of any first responder.