Grief mixed with defiance on Friday in Oakland when hundreds of people, some with dogs, gathered to pay final respects to Rocco, the slain K-9 officer described by many as “not just a dog.”
“You cannot teach loyalty and courage,” said retired police Sgt. Christopher Micknowski, a canine instructor. “The loyalty and courage that played out several days ago cannot be overstated. ... Rocco not only had those attributes, but he never hesitated to show them.”
The 8-year-old German shepherd and his partner, Pittsburgh police Officer Phil Lerza, were injured while capturing a fugitive last month in Lawrenceville.
John L. Rush, 21, of Stowe is accused of attacking Rocco with a pocket knife, stabbing Lerza in the shoulder, and injuring two other officers as they tried to arrest him in a building basement. Many people at Rocco's funeral said the dog's actions might have prevented human deaths.
“He's not just a dog,” said Max Sciullo, father of slain Pittsburgh Officer Paul Sciullo. “If it wasn't for that dog, we might be having three more funerals instead of one.”
On a cold morning, with flags whipping in the wind at half staff, bagpipes played as Lerza, flanked by his wife and children, carried Rocco's ashes into Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum.
Lerza passed about 80 police dogs and their partners who lined the walkway to the building. Many dogs whined as the urn passed. Some barked.
The service, which followed a police procession from the K-9 Training Center on Washington Boulevard, was opened to the public when Lerza and others received phone calls, letters and emails of support.
“As we have seen, Rocco touched the lives and hearts of many people,” Acting Chief Regina McDonald said.
Lerza did not speak during the ceremony, attended by about 600 people.
He and his wife, sitting in the front row of the auditorium, wiped tears as Officer Daniel Paga described Rocco as “a big dog, strong — he reminded me of a bear.
“His bark was so high-pitched,” Paga said, his voice cracking. “He could be coming from blocks away and you'd know: Phil and Rocco are coming.”
For all of the praise, the procession and 45-minute service did not escape criticism.
Road closures and traffic problems prompted some people to take to AM radio talk shows and social media to question whether a dog deserved such a send-off. In Oakland, many detractors wouldn't give their names. One woman, who stopped to ask what was going on, said, “Good grief. I get it, but geez.”
Darren Garfield, 46, of Oakland said the funeral was a nice tribute but over the top with the associated traffic blockages and publicity.
“There has to be a balance between acknowledging the service of K-9s but not going so far as to create traffic problems,” Garfield said. Police spokeswoman Diane Richard said police did not know the cost of the funeral. She said most officers who worked the service were on-duty or volunteered their time. No overtime was authorized, she said.
Mayor Bill Peduto, who was out of town, said the tribute was well-deserved.
“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 on Thursday.
Many funeral attendees wept for Rocco, even though they never met the dog.
“This is an event I hope to never see again,” said Cindy Bakow, 55, of Franklin Park, wiping tears as she watched police dogs and their handlers. “This K-9 police officer died a warrior's death. ... He gave his life protecting us. The perpetrator should be tried for murder of an officer.”
Gerry Hoel, 67, of Bloomfield walked slowly up the steps toward Soldiers & Sailors using her cane.
“I wanted to be here for the family. I don't know them, but I feel their sorrow. I feel so sad this happened,” Hoel said. “Rocco was certainly brave. He was definitely not just a dog.”
McClatchy-Tribune News Service