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Stories That Matter: How a Collaborative Multimedia Investigation Changed Police Dog Rules and Won a Pulitzer
Reporters from The Marshall Project, AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute dug into the use of "bite dogs" by law enforcement, leading at least three jurisdictions to institute reforms.
Police dogs can give law enforcement a cute and even playful image. Some even have their own social media accounts. But how many of their followers know that these dogs are sometimes used as weapons? Thousands of Americans are injured by police dogs every year, but there are no national standards for their training or use. While some bites are accidental, records and videos show it’s not unheard of to send a “bite dog” after a suspect.
Abbie VanSickle has spent years reporting on law enforcement and criminal justice, and the extent of the problem surprised even her. It started when Challen Stephens, an editor for AL.com, came across a case in which the same police dog, handled by the same officer, had injured multiple people. Stephens reached out to an editor at non-profit newsroom The Marshall Project, and a collaboration came together. Hundreds of court documents, violent videos, and emotional interviews later, the team — which also included contributors from the IndyStar and the Invisible Institute — published “Mauled: When Police Dogs Are Weapons.”
“As we started to see some of the patterns, we noticed we had a lot of cases of bystanders, and we had a lot of cases of dogs attacking their own handlers or other officers,” VanSickle said.
At first, the biggest challenges were the sheer number of incidents to work through, and the emotional toll of reading and watching them all. By the time of publication, the COVID-19 pandemic had amplified those hurdles, especially as the contributors to the project were spread across the country.
Still, the work made waves. From Washington State, to Indiana, to Louisiana, the investigation seems to have nudged law enforcement to reevaluate how it uses dogs. And in June of 2021, the “Mauled” team won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their work.
First, I want to congratulate you and your team on your work on this and the Pulitzer.
VanSickle: It’s totally surreal. I was completely shocked. And also, that it happened during COVID when I’m just working from home is even weirder, because I’m literally working sitting in my bed or in my PJs, with my kids. It’s just very funny, but it is amazing.
I would love to know what first led you to investigate police dog injuries.
VanSickle: So, the first grain of the story came from Challen Stephens. He’s with AL.com. He had heard about a federal case with a police dog that had injured a number of people, the same dog and the same handler. He had talked with my editor about that case, and my editor mentioned it to me, and [asked if I thought there was] anything bigger nationally about this. I feel like it’s a credit both to [Stephens] and to local journalism that he spotted this case as a problem. And then it’s also a credit to The Marshall Project, and to non-profit journalism, that we had the time and the space to be able to really dig into this area. I think, without both of those things together, it would have been hard to do the project.
Our first meeting together with Challen and our editors was in December of 2019. By that meeting, I had already done just some basic reporting, reached out to some people who had been quoted in stories about police dog attacks before and done clip searches, and Challen and I both were pretty confident that we had a really important story. But we were just starting.
What was the process for working through all the raw information and the primary sources to come out with these stories?
VanSickle: Challen and I, at the beginning, had no idea how many cases we would find. I thought it would be maybe a handful of cases. First we realized there wasn’t national data, so it’s not like we could just go and pull a database and see things like: How many cases are there? What was the age of the person? What was the race? What was the circumstance? Were they armed? What was the underlying crime, if there was one? Was it as a bystander? So, we created just an Excel spreadsheet with the fields that we thought we were interested in, and then started doing a few things: One was just clip searches to find any local mention of a police dog incident. Then, from those cases, we would call either the person or the lawyer or find a court case. And from there, then I would look to see if those lawyers had done other police dog cases, and I would do a PACER search, you know, federal court cases that particular lawyer had done and then pull all of those cases. And then the spreadsheet just sort of exploded.
As we started to see some of the patterns, we noticed we had a lot of cases of bystanders, and we had a lot of cases of dogs attacking their own handlers or other officers. We did not have many cases where people were armed. And so let’s say we had a local news story, and then we found the underlying court case, so then I would link to that underlying court case document, and then we had a video so that I would link to that video, and then we would have maybe the official law enforcement body cam videos, then I would link to that. So we had, you know, some master way to try to keep all of this organized as best we could.
So this is the really fun, sexy part of investigative reporting, right?
VanSickle: Yeah, I mean, I think so much of the story was working on that sort of internal organization to be able to see patterns and to be able to keep organized. Also, once we partnered with the IndyStar and Invisible Institute, to also be able to share it with them so they can see, and then we could exchange what we all had.
The piece is really multiple pieces, and they kind of range across a variety of media. I’m curious about how you and your team decided which parts to tell in which different ways?
VanSickle: There are a number of different stories and also different storytelling formats. One of the things that stood out to us in early reporting were the videos, because it’s one thing to hear that police use dogs to find people, and it felt like a very different thing to see what it looked like, and especially to hear what that sounded like. So, we definitely wanted to be able to show the public some of the videos that we had seen. But also, and I feel like this is a big credit to Cilena [Fang], our photo and multimedia editor, and to the other people working on this massive team who helped to edit the videos and really think through the process of making sure we had consent from people. We really wanted informed consent from people to use their videos, even if the videos have already been out on Facebook, as many of them have been, or if the police departments themselves release them. It still felt really important to make sure no one was surprised, and that people really had agreed to participate in the project. It was definitely something that we had group discussions about: How much of the videos do we show? Because we want to be able to get the point across that this is what this looks like, without feeling like we were excluding anyone’s experience or overwhelming people.
I was kind of struck by the beginning piece, about how these dogs are often depicted as cute and they can be disarming, and they can make police seem more friendly. I definitely have experienced that. I’m curious how that phenomenon affected your reporting.
VanSickle: I had spent a lot of my professional life reporting about criminal justice and up until this point I really didn’t know about how bite dogs in particular were used — the dogs that are used to find and bite people. We definitely saw the complexity of people’s views about dogs come out in the reporting. There was a lawyer in L.A. who talked about the “Lassie Effect” or “Rin Tin Tin Effect,” you know, the idea that it was very difficult for him to take cases like this in front of the jury, because people have such fond memories, either of their own dogs or of these dogs when they’re shown to them. [They see them as] very harmless. And that’s a difficult thing for lawyers who bring these cases. [IndyStar’s] Ryan Martin reported on a dog in Indianapolis, a police dog who had become kind of like a social media presence as a funny and cute animal. But then what the dog is actually asked to do, its work is not at all cute or cuddly. And so that duality, it came out in so many different ways.
There’s sometimes debate over whether to take police statements at their word, and also whether reporters can be too aggressive with reporting on law enforcement. How did you approach interviewing law enforcement for this project?
VanSickle: The image of an investigative reporter as somebody who’s looking for a gotcha moment is not how I approach my work. I don’t think it would work well with my personality to try to do that. I’m really trying to understand how something works. And so I’m really grateful especially to law enforcement officers and former law enforcement officers who work on these cases as experts now, or people who have had real experience, like the Oakland Police Department, who let me come and watch one of their canine trainings. I think that being able to actually see something, and really understand how something works, it’s kind of at the heart of what I’m trying to do.
I really want to know, like: Where did the dogs come from? And how do you train them? And I actually found many people, especially the former law enforcement officers, who believe that the dogs have a place in law enforcement, and were really frustrated when they felt like a department was falling short of standards. They were very frustrated if they saw cases where a dog was not trained properly, or the officer was not doing things according to how they were trained. They were really crucial voices for me because that was a real education; I didn’t know what kinds of things they looked for in dogs, I didn’t know what was considered an acceptable practice and what was not. The most fun part of journalism anyway is diving into something I don’t know that much about and really trying to understand it, and kind of puzzle through, and hopefully at the other end come out with something that’s helpful to the public to make their own decisions.
What was the hardest part of this process?
VanSickle: So, the hardest part of this project, I think, was the hardest part for every American in the last year, which is that we started the project in the “before times,” of being able to travel. My last reporting trip before COVID was to go to San Diego and sit in a federal courtroom and watch a jury trial of one of the dog cases. And that was so important, to be able to see what a juror’s face looks like as they respond to evidence, or to see what somebody’s testifying about their own experience of being, in this case, bitten on the head by a police dog. And to see the officer. All those things are so crucial to make sure that we’ve got the story right. And then suddenly, you know, on March 13th, 2020, I was suddenly at my house, with my two kids who were at the time one and four, trying to figure out how to keep going and just adapt. The challenge for me personally was just, you know, having the kids at home, figuring out childcare so that I could keep going forward on the story. I would sit in the car and do interviews, because that was the only quiet place that I could go. And then we had forest fires in California on top of that, just as we were getting ready to publish. So these outside things, and trying to adapt to them while making sure to keep constant momentum on the story, just for me personally, I think that was the biggest challenge.
What impact have you seen since publication?
VanSickle: Just as we were publishing the Indianapolis story, that department announced policy changes to the way that they were using the dogs. And they were very aware of our story. [Martin] had been interviewing them for months. We worked with the Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, because we heard about a police department [where they’re using dogs] frequently on juveniles. And it turned out that paper had also been kind of digging at that issue. And so we worked with them on a story, and the mayor immediately announced changes after that story was published.
And then in Washington State, some legislators there, they’ve created a working group to re-examine the way that law enforcement agencies use the dogs. My understanding is the working group is just kind of getting started and they haven’t made their recommendations yet, but legislators there I had reached out to, I know that they were interested in the stories that we published and some information that we had. We started this reporting before George Floyd was killed, and so before there was a sort of, like, reignited national attention specifically on police force. I think it’s become part of a national discussion that we all continue to see unfold about policing.
It’s encouraging to see a collaborative effort between papers from different parts of the country, plus a non-profit newsroom like The Marshall Project. How did that collaboration facilitate this work?
VanSickle: I feel like this project was just a giant team effort. It really took everybody, from our illustrator [to] all the local partners that we had trying to put the stories together for their audiences. I feel really proud to have worked on something that I hope is, if not a model, at least one example of a way that we can all work together. And I really hope to be able to be involved in projects like that in the future, because I think it’s really a powerful example of all of us being stronger together than alone.
And it was really fun too! I think that’s important. Of course, the stories themselves are incredibly serious. I don’t mean to make light of that in any way. But I also think it felt very meaningful for me to work with other journalists throughout the country, to collaborate together.
Additional content and context, added to everything we do.
Predict: What Happens Next?
The “Mauled” team tracked police dog bite incidents that took place from 2010 to 2020. A database, including descriptions and videos of these incidents, can be found on the project’s web page. But there are so many cases, the group has decided not to continue updating the page. Abbie VanSickle does continue to receive leads a couple of times a week, either from reporters who want to do stories about police dog bites in their own communities, or readers who want to know how to get information about how their own police departments use dogs.
VanSickle believes this work is part of the larger, evolving conversation about police use of force in America. She is curious to see whether the use of police dogs increases as an alternative to higher levels of force.
“This is just a particular corner of [that larger discussion],” she said. “It is still fascinating to try to understand what is happening, and will that change?”
Read: More on Police Brutality
James Baldwin, in a 1966 issue of The Nation, introduces readers to a Harlem that “is policed like occupied territory,” where law enforcement’s primary goal is to protect the interests of white businesses: “A Report From Occupied Territory,” July 11, 1966
Radley Balko on the use of SWAT teams and the rise of paramilitary force: “‘Why Did You Shoot Me? I Was Reading a Book’: The New Warrior Cop Is Out of Control,” July 7, 2013
In another story for The Marshall Project, produced in collaboration with the New York Times, Tom Robbins reports on all of the things that haven’t changed at one of America’s most notorious prisons since the riot of 1971, : “Attica’s Ghosts,” February 28, 2015
Meet About the Author
Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips is a journalist, editor, and health and science communicator based in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World.