By Chris Togneri and Bobby Kerlik
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
PITTSBURGH — Hundreds of active-duty and retired police officers and their families gathered Friday morning at a funeral service to honor Pittsburgh police dog Rocco, killed on duty, at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.
As bagpipers played, a procession of uniformed police officers wearing white gloves carried a large plaque displaying Rocco's photo followed by a box containing his cremated remains into the hall about 10:50 a.m. The service began at 11 a.m. with limited public seating available.
Police officers, their K-9 partners, politicians and residents who simply love dogs, wanted to say goodbye to Rocco. K-9 units lined the walkway to the building.
The dog bred in the Czech Republic and his partner, Officer Phil Lerza, were injured while capturing a fugitive. John L. Rush of Stowe is accused of stabbing the dog on Jan. 28 in Lawrenceville.
Acting Police Chief Regina McDonald said Rocco was Lerza's best friend.
"They trained together, worked together, lived together," she said during the service.
"This is an officer to them," said Don Marchione, 37, of Lawrenceville, who said his uncle is a retired K-9 handler. "He's a family member and he went into he trenches for his partner. He deserves this."
The procession and funeral service, honors typically reserved for human police officers, reflect the outpouring of emotion for a dog most people never met, officials said.
When Rocco died the night of Jan. 30, dozens of people stood in vigil outside the animal hospital. On social media, in homes and neighborhood bars, when word spread of his death, strangers mourned.
"Pittsburgh showed its soul that night, a soul that shines with compassion and recognizes the good not only in every human, but in every being," Mayor Bill Peduto said.
The reaction is not surprising, said police Chief Rudy Harkins in Marion Township, Beaver County, formerly the head K-9 trainer for Pittsburgh's police bureau.
Many people love dogs because they demonstrate levels of loyalty and courage most humans fail to reach, he said. Trained service dogs, including Rocco and other police canines, exhibit more bravery than the average dog, elevating them in the eyes of the public to "more than a dog," Harkins said.
"They're special — not just pet dogs," he said. "They perform tasks above and beyond, sometimes, what the officer can perform. ...
There is a bond that is hard to explain. It can be even tighter than you are with a lot of your family members, because you know he will be there when you need him."
Harkins trained Odin, the Lower Burrell K-9 dog whose partner, Officer Derek Kotecki, was fatally shot in 2011. Displaying the loyalty for which such dogs are known, Odin refused to leave Kotecki's body at the site of the shooting, officials said.
Beyond loyalty and courage, dogs endear themselves to humans because they seem pure and innocent, said Dan Rossi, executive director of the Animal Rescue League, where Rocco and other K-9 dogs receive regular medical checkups.
"We see animals as defenseless, innocent victims, and Rocco certainly was an innocent victim," Rossi said. "This happened to him and he certainly didn't deserve it. But he put his life on the line for his handler."
Peduto, citing a "longstanding commitment to a loved one," left Friday for a five-day vacation and did not attend the funeral. He met with the Lerza family on Thursday to present them with a City of Pittsburgh flag.
"He faced an assailant's knife without hesitation, without retreat, and with a loyalty that reached beyond mere 'trait' and well into the realm of character," Peduto said in a statement released after meeting with the family. "There are 5,000 known species of mammal, but Rocco showed us why only one of them is known as man's best friend."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review