By Andrew Cohen
Berkeley Law graduate Abbie VanSickle ’11 was a lead reporter of a year-long investigation into injuries caused by police dog bites that received a Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting.
VanSickle works for The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization launched in 2014 that focuses on urgent issues within America’s criminal justice system. The Marshall Project, which garnered its second Pulitzer Prize, collaborated on the initiative with AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute.
Their joint series “Mauled: When Police Dogs Are Weapons,” revealed how police dogs bite thousands of people every year in the United States, resulting in serious injuries and sometimes death. The series also won the Katharine Graham Award for Courage and Accountability from the White House Correspondents’ Association.
“I was surprised that there was no national regulation or tracking of how these dogs were trained and how they were used to bite people,” VanSickle says. “At a time when our country is focused on examining police use of force, I thought it was important to understand and examine how officers used dogs.”
The Pulitzer Prize is widely viewed as the highest honor that United States-based journalists or organizations can receive. “Mauled” was selected over this year’s other two finalists, reports from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
VanSickle says a reporter for AL.com, Challen Stephens, contacted The Marshall Project after noticing a troubling pattern of police dog violence in Alabama.
“I then started looking nationally to try and understand how the dogs were used, who was injured, and how often,” VanSickle says. “We later joined two other newsrooms (IndyStar and the Invisible Institute) that were looking at similar issues, mainly in Indiana. There’s so much that I find rewarding about this work, including helping the public to better understand how our criminal justice system works … I give my thanks to the people who agreed to speak with us about their experiences and to news organizations willing to dedicate the time and resources necessary to do this work.”
Together, relying heavily on court records, the organizations tracked police dog bite cases and created a national database with more than 150 severe incidents — sorting them by state, describing the attacks, and providing videos of some. Their research found that very few victims were armed, most were suspected of non-violent crimes, and some bystanders suffered bites. Read more about their report here.
According to The Marshall Project, soon after the first installment of the series was published the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department revised its use of police dogs and the mayor of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, directed the city’s police chief to stop using dogs on teen suspects.
In addition, the head of the Washington State Legislature’s Public Safety Committee used the report to craft a reform bill aimed at preventing the use of police dogs to bite people, a national police think tank started working on guidelines for K-9 units across the country, and the Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill that included limiting the use of dogs.
“I was humbled and honored — and stunned — to hear that we’d been chosen for the Pulitzer Prize,” says VanSickle, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.
Before joining The Marshall Project, she worked at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Tampa Bay Times. A lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, VanSickle was a Henry Luce Scholar in Cambodia from 2011 to 2012, working on behalf of survivors at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.