Abbie VanSickle, an alumna from the UC Berkeley School of Law and a staff writer for The Marshall Project, received news Friday that she and the team of reporters that VanSickle had worked with were the recipients of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting.
An Alabama news publication first contacted The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on people affected by the U.S. incarceration and policing system, in 2019 with concerns regarding the use of police dogs in Alabama. After this was forwarded to VanSickle, Challen Stephens, an investigative reporter and editor for Al.com, worked with her as they investigated K-9 units across the country. Together, they uncovered numerous damaging and fatal encounters resulting from police dogs.
Partnering with other organizations, including the Invisible Institute, Al.com and The Indianapolis Star, VanSickle and Stephens helped create a national database for tracking K-9 incidents across the country.
VanSickle said the data showed that people were not armed in most instances and that police dogs were used even in minor interactions with law enforcement, such as license plate violations.
“Police dogs are so often used as public relations tools by departments,” said Michelle Pitcher— reporting assistant for The Marshall Project, a graduate student in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a former editor in chief and president of The Daily Californian — in an email. “Knowing the kind of damage they can do to a person they bite — the physical and psychological injuries — casts it all in a whole new light.”
Stephens said he reached out to The Marshall Project because he wanted to compare Alabama with the rest of the country in terms of police dog biting incidents. However, Stephens noted that Alabama is allegedly not cooperative with releasing public records.
As part of his collaboration with VanSickle, the reporters were able to gather data by different means, medical studies and records revealing thousands of emergency room visits due to incidents involving K-9 units annually.
Stephens added that a major issue they uncovered was that there was no systematic training in the use of dogs in policing. He said the dogs are often bred overseas, shipped to the states and sold to police departments with no government oversight and that many of the departments had never worked with dogs before.
“They get some information from a private guy that has a weird theory about how dogs work,” Stephens said. “A very big issue was quite often, good handlers and bad handlers aside, they couldn’t get the dogs to release. They had to fight them and pull them off.”
Many police departments began to change policies concerning the use of dogs following the team’s investigative piece, according to Andrew Fan, chief operating officer for the Invisible Institute. Those changes include the new regulations adopted by the Massachusetts Police Department and policy changes in the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.
VanSickle added that Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome made a public announcement that their police department would stop the use of dogs on juveniles.
“I would say that these are significant but also fall short of what some experts have called for,” Fan said in an email. “I think our reporting raises the question of whether police should be using dogs in this way at all.”