NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Legislation is moving forward with the goal of toughening penalties for people who hurt law enforcement dogs.

HB1646/SB2013 was named after K-9 Joker, who was hospitalized in September last year after she was shot while pursuing car burglary suspects in Cleveland, Tennessee. Six juveniles were arrested in Chattanooga related to the shooting and a series of vehicle thefts. Joker has since recovered and is back on the job.

When Cleveland State Community College Professor Marcus Easley saw the incident, he and his students wanted to help.

“I was a Chattanooga Police Officer for 27 years. So I have a real love for law enforcement. As someone I retired from the police department, I started teaching criminal justice and have taught for several years at Cleveland State,” he said. “And when this incident happened, it just touched me.”

It turned out that the son of Joker’s handler was a student in his class.

“We reached out to Joker’s handler and he came to class and talk to us. And the word got back to Sheriff Lawson of Bradley County that some students wanted to do something. So he came out and talk with us,” he recalled. “Then Representative Mark Hill from Bradley County. He got wind of it. And the next thing you know, we’ve got this huge meeting with dozens of people on campus.”

They then led the effort to raise awareness about Joker’s Law being proposed through a petition, and community meetings and events.

“It’s almost surreal, especially when you have to understand we’re a community college so the vast majority of my students are 17, 18,19 years old, and these are things they’ve read about. For them to have their hand in it and know that they were out front, you know, asking for those signatures trying to set up these events, and then looking up and suddenly there was this community movement behind them,” he said.

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The bill creates a separate offense of knowingly and unlawfully killing a police dog, fire dog, search and rescue dog, service animal, or police horse without the owner’s effective consent. A violation will be a Class B felony. An amendment passed Wednesday changes the penalty for injury or death to one of these dogs to be a Class D felony, and it revises the present law provision to say someone can be justified in killing another person’s animal if there was a danger to an animal “in the control of” that person.

“I think it started putting that thought process and motion of maybe we should start protecting these animals a little more. Not just from the humane idea that looks, you are putting this animal in harm’s way, it doesn’t know that it’s just doing what it’s being trained to do,” he said. “The benefit that you are getting out of the service of an animal. Okay, yes, you’re getting drug dealers off the street. Yes, you’re catching bad guys that run into the woods but you’re also finding children who wander off into the woods, you’re finding elderly people or someone possibly suffering a mental health crisis.”

The bill passed the Tennessee Senate by a vote of 31 to 1 and is on the schedule for the agenda for the Finance, Ways, and Means Subcommittee for April 26, 2022.