Photo by Erika Fleegle

The newest addition to the Pittsburgh Law Enforcement Officer Memorial, a replica of a police dog, was unveiled and dedicated in a ceremony on Saturday, August 8, 2015.

By Erika Fleegle

Dog is man’s best friend. With that being said, Pittsburgh’s Law Enforcement Officer Memorial on North Shore has a best friend of its own. The Pennsylvania State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police came together with the community to honor Rocco, who was an Allegheny County canine officer that gave the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty, with a statue dedication Aug. 8. Rocco was fatally stabbed in Lawrenceville in January of 2014.

The ceremony began with the advancement of the colors by the Greater Pittsburgh Police Emerald Society Pipe and Drum Band, followed by a wreath placement by Allegheny Commandery #35.

Donna Best, former president of the Law Enforcement Officer Memorial, offered some introductory words and praise for the memorial’s new addition.

“If you come up and take a look at the statue, you’re going to think that the canine’s been here since the inception of the statue,” she said. ‘It’s a fantastic job that (artist Susan Wagner) has done.”

Best later noted that the statue had been in the works since last January 2014 after Rocco was fatally stabbed in Lawrenceville while trying to apprehend a suspect paired with the outcry of concern and interest from the public following his death.

“Everybody has an animal,” Best said. “And everyone can relate to someone losing their pet. Although he was a working dog, he was also their pet.”

Officer Phil Lerza, Rocco’s human partner, was also present to pay tribute to his canine comrade.

“He became a member of my family,” Lerza said. “One of the reasons I’m here today is because he was there with me in that basement that night. He was my partner. He was Rocco Lerza.”

“I think what we have here is something these dogs deserve.”

The statue, designed by Susan Wagner, who also designed the original memorial, was meant to represent all canine officers past, present and future that lay their lives on the line for our safety. Sculpted from clay and then cast in bronze, the dog patiently sits at his uniformed master’s feet, both figures gazing out over the river toward the center of the city.

Wagner took initiative for the project almost immediately, calling all the necessary contacts to get the ball rolling.

“It just felt like the right time,” she said. “I knew if we didn’t do it now, it would never be done.”

While Wagner did not have a specific dog in mind when creating the statue, she did have a little help from Bandit, an Allegheny County Sheriff’s dog who sat for her sculpting sessions over a couple months.

“I loved having him,” she said. “He just wanted to play all the time. He was so gentle.”

It was this gentleness that Wagner, a self-professed animal lover, wanted to capture.

“They may not realize how intricate a part of people’s families they are. The kids play with them. They’re not vicious. They’re just doing their job.”

Councilwoman Darlene Harris was also present.

In order to cover the cost of the statue along with general maintenance, donations are still being accepted. To contribute, visit the Greater Pittsburgh Police Credit Union official website.

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Photo by Erika Fleegle

Officer Phil Lerza stands in front of the new statue, dedicated to his former canine partner Rocco, with his family.