In 2008, former Wiltshire Police officer Neil Sampson was attacked by a crazed knifeman while attending an emergency call in Swindon. He was stabbed seven times, sustaining serious wounds to his head, and his life was only saved thanks to the intervention of his dog, Anya.
PD Finn sustained head and chest
injuries after being stabbed by
a suspected armed robber
Both Mr Sampson and Anya eventually made full recoveries, and for attacking a police officer, Essa Suleiman was charged with grievous bodily harm, wounding with intent to cause GBH, and actual bodily harm. However, for the brutal attack on the dog that leapt to Mr Sampson’s rescue, Suleiman was only charged with criminal damage to police property.
This situation is not uncommon. Under current law, anyone who wounds or even kills a police animal can only be charged with criminal damage, as if they broken a patrol car window or vandalised a police station. Campaigners have long pushed for police animals to be given greater protection under law, but so far, their efforts have been unsuccessful.
However, there is a chance that this could soon all change. On October 4, Hertfordshire PC David Wardell and Police Dog Finn were violently stabbed as they chased down a suspected armed robber. In the aftermath of the incident, a petition has been established calling on the Government to offer police animals the same legal protections as officers, and the positive response has been overwhelming. In less than two days, the petition received more than 31,000 signatures, guaranteeing a government response and a third of the way towards being considered for parliamentary debate.
Mr Sampson is eager to see the motion reach Parliament, as he agrees that further protections are needed. When Anya was stabbed, the court initially did not intend to charge Suleiman over the offence at all, and only agreed to do so once he insisted that the attack should not go unpunished.
“They were not looking at any charges before that – it was only when I raised the fact that I thought that what he did should not be ignored,” he said. “Ok, Anya was going to detain him, but he stuck a knife in her and that was an act he did deliberately. He stuck the knife in me as well, and it just doesn’t seem balanced.”
The campaigners propose bringing UK laws in line with the protections offered to police animals in the US, where they are almost treated as police officers. While attacking a police dog does not carry the same penalties as assaulting or killing an officer, most states punish offenders with criminal charges. If an animal is killed, it often receives a full police funeral and, in August, a burglar from Ohio was sentenced to 34 years after he fatally shot PD Jethro.
It is not as if there are no protections for working animals in the UK. Guide dogs are recognised as ‘extensions’ of their owners, and allowing another animal to attack one carries a prison sentence of up to three years. As made clear by the petition, public support for additional protections for police animals is vast. Britain is famously a nation of dog lovers, and the sheer number of condolences and well wishes being sent to PD Finn puts this beyond doubt.
In fact, the public almost seems to be more concerned with animal safety than that of human officers. When Mr Sampson was attacked, he was sent plenty of ‘get well soon’ cards from friends and colleagues. However, the reaction to his injuries paled in contrast to the support for Anya.
“I got a lot of cards saying ‘sorry you’re injured, hope you get better’, but Anya probably got twice as many as I did,” he said. “That’s quite common. The incident generated a lot of public interest, but everything always started with ‘how’s Anya?’
“I actually quite liked it. It’s a nice sign that people are that concerned about an animal.”
The proposed ‘Finn’s Law’ is not the first time such a campaign has been launched. However, it is by far the most successful. A similar petition from 2011 closed after six months with just 11,000 signatures, and another started in response to the attack on PC Sampson and Anya failed to tap into any groundswell of opinion. This was largely because social media did not have quite the same presence in 2008 as it does now and the campaign could not be quite so easily shared.
It remains to be seen if the Government will be swayed by this surge in public opinion. Responding to past petitions, it has previously agreed that although attacks on police animals should be “severely” dealt with, creating a new offence is not necessary as the behaviour is already criminal. The official stance is that an additional offence would be unlikely to lead to more prosecutions or higher penalties, and would not serve as a more effective deterrent.
However, Mr Sampson remains hopeful that the campaign will reach the 100,000 signatures required to be considered for debate.
“I think there is a tide of support within policing and within the general public,” he said. “When you get a major case like this and start seeing pictures everywhere, it starts raising that thought in people’s minds. When you say that the charge for injuring – or even killing – a police dog or horse is criminal damage, most people are shocked by that.
“The groundswell of opinion is that it doesn’t feel right, but convincing politicians – that’s a whole other ball game isn’t it?”PD Finn is recovering from his injuries after undergoing four-hour emergency treatment. The petition to implement ‘Finn’s Law’ can be found at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/168678