Tanja's memorial: Proposed law would define killing a police dog as murder

Honor guard members carry Tanja's remains from the building after a memorial service for the Walker County K-9 deputy at the Walker County Civic Center in this June 20, 2014, photo.
photo Honor guard members carry Tanja's remains from the building after a memorial service for the Walker County K-9 deputy at the Walker County Civic Center in this June 20, 2014, photo.

A lot of bark. A little bite.

But state Sen. Jeff Mullis is sharpening his teeth.

If a bill Mullis filed Thursday passes the Georgia Legislature, law enforcement officers could charge someone with second-degree murder for killing a working police dog.

Now, someone who injures or kills a police K-9 like Tanja faces one to five years in prison. If Mullis' bill is passed, the punishment would rise 10-30 years in prison, the same as accidentally killing a child being disciplined.

Mullis crafted the legislation, named "Tanja's Law," after a man shot a Walker County K-9 last June. Mullis met with the 2-year-old Dutch shepherd's handler, Deputy Donnie Brown, and felt the killer's punishment wasn't substantial enough.

photo Police dog Tanja was killed last week in the line of duty.

Mullis' bill comes with other provisions. Physically harming a police dog could draw up to a year in prison. Deliberately injuring a K-9 could mean 10-20 years behind bars. Should the dog die, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation will be required to perform an autopsy.

Mullis said he looks forward to hearing the opposition on the case. And that certainly exists.

"This is kind of wacky," Georgia State law professor Russell Covey said Friday after reading the bill.

photo Officers process into the Walker County Civic Center for a memorial service for Walker County K-9 Tanja in this 2014 file photo.

Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a professor of law emeritus at the University of Georgia, felt the same way.

"To criminalize the killing of a dog as murder is unbelievably weird," Wilkes said.

By the legal definition, Wilkes said, only humans can be murdered. In his 40 years of teaching, he has never seen a law that applies murder to an animal. And while killing an animal is awful, he said, laws already cover the crime.

It's difficult to say whether this type of law exists or has been attempted elsewhere. A spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures said he didn't have any information about dog murders. Neither did a national spokeswoman for The Humane Society.

It's also difficult to say how often K-9s like Tanja die in the line of duty, though a Google search turns up multiple stories about dogs killed by criminals or in the course of a police officer's accident.

Georgia's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council does not keep stats on police K-9 deaths. Neither do the Department of Public Safety nor the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Covey said Mullis' bill poses another issue: It doesn't account for state of mind. Someone who accidentally killed a police dog could be on the hook for murder. What happens if a handler is negligent during training and the dog dies of injury or heat stroke?

Looking at it more broadly, Covey finds the potential dog murder law unprecedented.

"Though we love them and hate to see harm done to them, we don't treat them under the same moral rules that we treat human beings," he said. "When a dog gets old and sick, we're allowed to put them down. We don't put down Grandma."

Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson disagrees, to an extent. Yes, a human's life is more valuable than a dog's, he said. But the killing of a police K-9 should be punished more harshly than it now is, he believes.

"The punishment provided for in this bill is adequate and fair," he said.

Tanja had joined the sheriff's office for about 12 weeks before she died in June. Deputies were outside a trailer in a rural part of Lookout Mountain trying to arrest Steven Lee Waldemar on charges of aggravated sexual battery.

Police say officers told Waldemar, 58, to come outside. When he didn't, an officer threw pepper spray into the trailer. Waldemar still didn't come out, so another officer opened the door and Tanja ran in.

Waldemar fired a shotgun at the dog, killing her. The blast also injured Brown, Tanja's handler.

The sheriff's office held a public funeral where more than 200 paid respects, including K-9 officers from Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. An American flag hung over U.S. Highway 27, supported by the ladders of two firetrucks. A bagpiper played, and a portrait of Tanja was displayed beside a wreath.

"Everybody hated [the death]," said Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell, who could not make it to the funeral. "It's such a ridiculous thing that caused it. I thought it was a touching ceremony."

Four months later, Waldemar pleaded guilty to a slew of charges.

No human members of the sheriff's office have died in the line of duty since 1934. Wilson said few tragedies have impacted his department as much as Tanja's death has. Her handler still struggles with the memory.

"It's a good law," Wilson said of Mullis' bill. "There will probably be some debate to it. I do not expect it to have any trouble passing."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.comor at 423-757-6476.

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