In 2019, an attorney approached journalist Challen Stephens with several videos showing a police dog mauling residents in the small town of Talladega, Alabama [in the US South]. The violence disturbed Stephens, and prompted him to investigate. He discovered the dog had attacked at least nine people in a single year, all of whom were suspected of petty offenses — or no crime at all. Nearly all the bite victims were Black.
“Their stories were just jarring,” says Stephens, an investigative reporter and editor for AL.com, which includes The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times, and Mobile’s Press-Register. “The videos were horrific.”
He expanded his investigation to other Alabama cities. He says what he learned during a year of reporting challenged his assumptions about police dogs — that law enforcement agencies primarily use them to control violent offenders and track down “bad guys” — and their public image as local heroes featured in parades and community events.
After realizing that no government entity monitors the problem at a national or regional level, Stephens reached out to journalists at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news outlet covering criminal justice in the United States, for help broadening the investigation. When they later learned The Indianapolis Star was working with the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalism production company in Chicago, on a similar project, the four organizations joined forces to examine the issue from a national and local perspective.
Together, the team built a database to track and compare police dog bites based on data obtained from more than 50 police agencies nationwide, including in the 20 most populous cities. The journalists also examined thousands of pages of police records and policies, excessive force lawsuits, and medical studies.
Stephens says he and Abbie VanSickle, who covers criminal justice in California for The Marshall Project, were shocked at what they saw in the videos they reviewed. The news outlets decided to include a few clips in the series, Mauled: When Police Dogs Are Weapons, so members of the public could see and hear the violence for themselves.
“Abbie and I watched dozens of body-cam images and we learned what’s normal and what stood out,” Stephens says. “You could tell very quickly what wasn’t normal watching these.”
The journalists interviewed dozens of people, including those who had suffered injuries as well as dog trainers, dog behavior experts, attorneys, and law enforcement officials. They also spoke with family members of Joseph Lee Pettaway, a 51-year-old man from Montgomery, Alabama, who bled to death in 2018, after a police dog tore an artery in his groin. Someone had reported a burglary in progress at a house Pettaway’s family said he was helping repair.
Among the series’ main findings: police dogs in the United States bite thousands of people a year — primarily suspects, but also handlers and other officers. In a few instances, a dog bit an innocent person who happened to be nearby when police deployed the animal. Most dog-bite targets were unarmed.
The injuries can be severe and life changing.
“A dog chewed on an Indiana man’s neck for 30 seconds, puncturing his trachea and slicing his carotid artery,” according to the main story in the series. “A dog ripped off an Arizona man’s face. A police dog in California took off a man’s testicle. Dog bites cause more hospital visits than any other use of force by police, according to a 2008 academic analysis of 30 departments.”
The team of journalists noted, however, that law enforcement agencies vary substantially in the way they use their dogs.
“Police in Chicago almost never deploy dogs for arrests and had only one incident from 2017 to 2019,” they report. “Washington had five. Seattle had 23. New York City, where policy limits their use mostly to felony cases, reported 25. By contrast, Indianapolis had more than 220 bites, and Los Angeles reported more than 200 bites or dog-related injuries, while Phoenix had 169. The Sheriff’s Department in Jacksonville, Florida, had 160 bites in this period.”
Ryan Martin, an investigative reporter at The Indianapolis Star, says comparing bites among the nation’s largest cities was important context.
“Not only did it show this is a much bigger issue than I realized, it also revealed just how out of bounds Indianapolis’ number of bites, how out of bounds it really was,” Martin says, adding that being able to offer a national perspective bolstered his local coverage, which focused on Indiana. “It strengthened the local reporting just like the local reporting strengthened the national reporting.”
The journalists point out that police use dogs in what often starts out as a minor incident or a non-incident, such as “a problem with a license plate, a claim of public urination, a man looking for a lost cat.”
The series also discusses how dogs have been used to control and police Black people, starting with slaves in the South. With help from academic experts, the journalists explain the use of dogs from slavery, up through the Civil Rights era to recent years. They also highlight the racial disparities discovered in their analysis of dog bites.
In Talladega, for example, Black people were injured in almost all cases of dog bites the reporters examined. An officer there testified under oath that a supervisor had said he wanted a dog that would bite a Black person.
Provoking a National Debate
The series spurred a national discussion about police dogs and had other immediate impacts. Within days of its first installment, Indianapolis police announced widespread changes in how they planned to use dogs. A national police think tank began work on setting guidelines for the use of police dogs. Policymakers in a number of states requested copies of the series as they prepared to write new laws limiting the use of police dogs.
Late last year, the team that produced Mauled published a list of top tips for other journalists wanting to investigate how police use dogs as weapons. The first tip: “Court records can be key. People who have suffered severe dog-bite injuries sometimes file lawsuits in federal or state courts contending that police violated their civil rights.” Another tip: “Finding and interviewing dog-bite victims takes patience and tact. Many people who have been bitten by police dogs describe it as extremely traumatic and are unwilling to revisit the experience; we had the most success in reaching them when we used family or lawyers as intermediaries.”
We asked for more details about how the team overcame some of the biggest challenges in reporting out the series. Below are four additional tips, based on our interviews with journalists who led the series. We spoke with Stephens of AL.com, Martin of The Indianapolis Star and Andrew Fan, a data reporter who is the chief operating officer at the Invisible Institute. VanSickle of The Marshall Project responded to several questions by email.
1. Find out how law enforcement agencies track and report the information you want. This will help you decide which public records to request.
Stephens says law enforcement agencies use different types of reports to document dog bites. Some include bite information on incident reports, which detail interactions between police and civilians. Some agencies complete separate reports on the circumstances of a dog bite. Many police departments include dog bites in a third type of report that chronicles officers’ use of force.
Stephens adds that bite numbers might be included in other documents as well — for instance, a police department’s annual report or a report issued after a review by another government agency, such as the US Department of Justice.
He suggests obtaining many different records when trying to piece together what happened before, during, and after a police dog attack.
“Anytime someone interacts with the criminal justice system, a record exists,” he explains. “It can be time consuming to track [the records] down, but they offer a fuller picture.”
2. Ask law enforcement agencies how they define important terms.
The journalists who worked on this series initially wanted to track how often and under what circumstances officers deployed police dogs. But that turned out to be difficult, considering police agencies differ quite a bit in how they define the term “deployment,” Fan notes.
Some consider a dog deployed if it is sent out to a location to assist an officer. For others, a dog is not deployed until an officer takes it out of a police vehicle. Meanwhile, some agencies consider a dog deployed after it receives a command from an officer to attack or hold a suspect.
Agencies even use different terms for the dogs themselves, including apprehension dog, patrol dog, and bite dog.
“Going in, we didn’t fully expect the range of ways of reporting this information,” he says. “Handling that inconsistency took a lot of work. And it was something that it would have been good to expect going in.”
Although the team ultimately decided to track and compare dog bites, Fan says even that was not a perfect strategy. A handful of police departments recorded other interactions as bite incidents — for example, a police dog jumping on someone or scratching a suspect.
3. When combining data, make sure individual data sets match one another, especially if they come from multiple sources. Otherwise, conclusions drawn from the data could be erroneous.
You might have to standardize your data. For example, if you ask law enforcement agencies for a year of data, some might give you data collected from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. Others might give you data collected during a fiscal year, which generally starts mid-calendar-year and ends 365 days later.
If data timeframes do not match and you combine them into one database, you won’t be able to do an accurate analysis or draw true comparisons, Fan and Martin warn. Knowing this, the reporting team obtained monthly totals from each agency.
When it comes to police use of force, officials generally report each type of use of force, not the number of incidents in which officers used force on members of the public. One incident, or interaction with police, can involve multiple uses of force — a person could be struck by an officer, tackled by an officer and bitten by a police dog, for example.
Martin says it is crucial that journalists understand what the data they are examining represents and use care when describing it.
“If we are not patient enough and skillful enough, we can introduce an error mistakenly,” he says.
4. When faced with a shortage of academic research on an issue, find other ways to demonstrate trends, gauge the effectiveness of a program, or fact-check claims.
VanSickle says the team had trouble finding academic research on police dog bites.
“Although law enforcement statistics and data are notoriously hard to find and localized, there’s a lot more academic work focused on lethal force, police shootings, and tasers,” she explained in an email. “Bite dogs are a high level of force, so I was a bit surprised to find so few articles and studies on their use.”
How did she and her colleagues evaluate whether law enforcement agencies were using police dogs correctly?
“Our reporting team worked on this question in a few ways,” she wrote. “First, we asked for data from the 20 largest American cities, so we had an idea of which agencies had the most bites. We also talked with dog experts, trainers, expert witnesses, dog importers, and others in the field to try and understand how dogs were trained and what red flags to look for in videos (dogs refusing to let go, handlers having to yank dogs off of people or choke the dogs to stop the bite, etc.). Members of the team also observed training of dogs, both at a private facility and by law enforcement.”
The reporters also sought experts who worked with police dogs or studied working dogs.
“We spoke with dozens of people involved in the pipeline,” she added. “We looked for people who had years of experience with bite dogs, people who had given court testimony under oath, and always tried to check each person’s expertise against all of the other voices that we had for the stories.”
If you’re looking for more on dog bites and police use of force, check out The Journalist’s Resource research roundups on deaths in police custody and on dog bites and other canine-related injuries, or this study that examines the severity of injuries resulting from police use of force.
This article was originally published on The Journalist’s Resource. It is republished with permission. Mauled: When Police Dogs Are Weapons was a collaboration involving AL.com, The Marshall Project, The Indianapolis Star, and the Invisible Institute. It was one of five finalists for the 2021 Goldsmith Prize, awarded by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.