An investigation conducted by several independent news outlets coordinated by the Marshall Project lays bare mounting evidence of extensive and disproportionate deployment of police dogs against people of color.
“It felt like I was being eaten,” recounted Joseph Malott, a 22-year-old Black student who was mauled by a police dog moments after deflecting a tear gas canister, away from himself and allegedly toward officers, in June 2020 during a Black Lives Matter protest in California. Later that night, Malott became one of the approximately 3,600 Americans per year sent to the emergency room for severe bite injuries sustained during altercations with police K-9s. Although men and women of just about every age and ethnicity in all fifty states have been subjected to violent K-9 incidents, a series of 13 linked reports, titled “Mauled: When Police Dogs are Weapons,” produced by AL.com, IndyStar, the Invisible Institute, and the Marshall Project, suggests Black men have been inordinately targeted. [USA Today partnered with the Marshall Project, AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute on two of the 13 reports in the “Mauled” series: See Maurice Chammah and Abbie VanSickle, “She Went Out for a Walk. Then Drogo the Police Dog Charged,” The Marshall Project, October 15, 2020, also published as Maurice Chammah and Abbie VanSickle, “She Went Out for a Walk, Then Drogo the Police Dog Charged,” USA Today, October 15, 2020; and “‘A Dog Can be Trained to be Anti-Black’: A New Film Highlights Historical Use of Canines against Black People,” The Marshall Project, June 23, 2021.]
According to Bryn Stole and Grace Toohey’s February 2021 report, the rate of police K-9 bites in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a majority-Black city of 220,000 residents, averages more than double that of the next-ranked city, Indianapolis; and nearly one-third of the police dog bites are inflicted on teenage men, most of whom are Black. Overall, between 2017 and 2019, Baton Rouge police dogs bit at least 146 people. Fifty-three of those people were 17 years old or younger. A majority of the dog-bite victims were Black, and most of them were unarmed and suspected by police of nonviolent crimes such as driving a stolen vehicle or burglary.
Stole and Toohey recounted the stories of two Black teens, neither suspected of violent or serious crimes, who were hunted and mauled by Baton Rouge police K-9s in June and October of 2019 after attempting to run or bike away from officers. Lester (a minor whose last name was not revealed to protect his anonymity) and Charles Carey, respectively 14 and 17 years old when attacked, will grow up with physical and mental scars from the attacks they sustained. As Abbie VanSickle, Challen Stephens, Ryan Martin, Dana Brozost-Kelleher, and Andrew Fan reported in October 2020, medical researchers have found that police dog attacks are “more like shark attacks than nips from a family pet” due to the aggressive training police dogs undergo. The Baton Rouge Police Department gives K-9 officers nonspecific leeway to release dogs based on officers’ assessments of “the severity of the crime” and whether “the suspect poses an immediate threat,” Stole and Toohey reported in February 2021.
As the October 2020 report by VanSickle and her colleagues noted, “Police dogs have a highly charged history in the United States, especially in the South, where they were used against enslaved people and, in the 1960s, civil rights protesters.”
Though the Black Lives Matter movement has significantly raised public awareness of police using disproportionate force against people of color, police K-9 violence has received strikingly little attention from corporate news media. One might expect horrific stories, including cases in which “[a] woman’s scalp was torn in California; a man’s vocal cords were damaged in Colorado; [and] an Arizona man’s face was ripped off,” as Ashley Remkus reported in an October 2020 installment of the “Mauled” investigation, to be undeniably newsworthy. Nevertheless, corporate coverage has been limited. To its credit, the Washington Post published a front-page story on the topic, in November 2020, which cited the Marshall Project’s reporting.77 [On September 2, 2020, the Washington Post published an article, Tyler D. Parry’s “Police Still Use Attack Dogs against Black Americans,” that provided historical perspective on the racist aspects of contemporary police dog attacks, but this story only appeared on the Post’s website and not in print.] In October 2020, USA Today published an article on police dogs and excessive force, authored by the Marshall Project’s Maurice Chammah and Abbie VanSickle, the same day that it was published by the Marshall Project. An August 2020 NBC News report covered the Salt Lake City Police Department’s suspension of its police K-9 program, after video circulated of a police dog biting a Black man who was kneeling on the ground with his hands held up. Otherwise, coverage appears to have been limited to local news outlets (e.g., Danielle Leigh, Grace Manthey, and John Kelly, “Eyewitness News Investigation Finds Use of Police Dogs Causing Serious Injury, Death Even When Suspects Weren’t Combative,” ABC7 (Los Angeles), December 24, 2020; and WBRZ Staff, “BRPD Revising Policy for Chasing Juvenile Suspects with Police Dogs,” WBRZ (ABC, Baton Rouge), February 12, 2021.)
In April 2021, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy announced that the Marshall Project’s “Mauled: When Police Dogs are Weapons” investigation had been selected as a finalist for the Center’s 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Bryn Stole and Grace Toohey, “The City Where Police Unleash Dogs on Black Teens,” The Marshall Project, February 12, 2021.
Abbie VanSickle and Challen Stephens, “Police Use Painful Dog Bites to Make People Obey,” The Marshall Project, December 14, 2020.
Abbie VanSickle, Challen Stephens, Ryan Martin, Dana Brozost-Kelleher, and Andrew Fan, “When Police Violence is a Dog Bite,” The Marshall Project, October 2, 2020.
Ashley Remkus, “We Spent a Year Investigating Police Dogs. Here are Six Takeaways,” The Marshall Project, October 2, 2020.
Student Researchers: Ian M. Williams and Jason Medrano (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)
Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.