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Illustration by Elan Kiderman and Photo by Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

The Rise and Fall of a Celebrity Police Dog

Obi had thousands of Instagram followers for being “cute and derpy.” His work on the streets of Indianapolis was another matter.

k9_lando317: Obi’s cute and derpy, but he’s also stubborn, high strung, and will test his mama when he can.

The social media post’s author is Molly Groce, a dog handler for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. K-9 Obi, though, is the reason most people would follow the Instagram account. And for 10 months, he remained a star to tens of thousands of followers.

For people on the internet who love dogs, the Dutch shepherd’s slobbery face and quirkiness offered a slice of joy in their feeds. Others delighted in the account’s constant references to Star Wars (K-9 Obi, which sounds like Kenobi, is named after the popular Jedi). And if it isn’t always easy to connect with the badge these days, at least a "derpy" dog provided a light-hearted way to back the blue.

But, like most patrol dogs, there’s another side to Obi. You probably would not realize it from the way police departments use photos of K-9s on social media, but Obi is not quite like the other dogs who become Instagram or Facebook famous. He is not like a golden retriever who steals an owner’s remote control. He is not the same as any pet dog you’ve likely encountered.

He may have been, once. Not anymore. Not since he was trained to hunt down humans. Not since he attacked five innocent victims.

Gordon Mitchum Sr., 78, of Indianapolis, a retired mail handler of 43 years, talks about being unintentionally bitten by a Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department K-9.

Longtime trainers of police dogs say it takes weeks of training, and maybe a little experience on the street, to transform a shepherd like Obi from a normal pet dog into a weapon. IMPD’s patrol dogs have two main jobs: Use their noses to search for people who are running away, and then bite them if necessary. A little nip or snap is not sufficient; these dogs are required to aggressively leap at someone’s legs or arms, sink their teeth into skin and tighten their jaws for several seconds.

It’s that side—the one not seen on Instagram—that was most evident on May 31, 2018, just four months before Groce’s post.

That’s when Obi, leashed by Groce but still rushing ahead of her while officers searched for a carjacker on Indianapolis’ east side, entered the backyard of Gordon Mitchum. Obi attacked Mitchum, who is now 79, even though he was an innocent bystander and even though Groce did not command the dog to bite.

The damage to Mitchum was so severe that he could not stand up, needed to be driven by an ambulance to the hospital and then had to stop using his foot for a while. The damage was made worse, Mitchum’s attorney says, because Groce had to physically pull her dog away from Mitchum, leaving Obi’s teeth to rip through Mitchum’s flesh.

But if Obi is unlike most dogs that populate social media, he is not so unlike his IMPD peers.

IndyStar and The Marshall Project previously published the results of a yearlong investigation that found IMPD led its peers in the rate of K-9 bites over the last three years. Furthermore, IndyStar found that IMPD used dogs mostly on people who were unarmed or who were wanted in low-level and non-violent crimes. The investigation is part of a series titled Mauled, produced in partnership with The Invisible Institute in Chicago and

Indianapolis police K-9s, however, aren’t only biting people wanted in crimes. They are also biting people such as Mitchum, who just so happen to be nearby.

An IMPD spokeswoman declined an IndyStar request for an interview for this story, and said no one would be available to comment about Groce’s Instagram account.

In previous interviews, IMPD has insisted such bites, which the department classifies as accidental or unintentional bites, are rare. The department would not provide a precise number to IndyStar, but K-9 supervisors guessed maybe five innocent bystanders have been bitten in the last 10 years. That number does not include when K-9s bite police officers. IMPD would not provide that number, either, but IndyStar found records that attribute at least three bites of officers in about 4½ years to Obi alone.

Sgt. Craig Patton, of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD), speaks with IndyStar in Indianapolis on June 30, 2020. Patton has been an Indianapolis K-9 officer since 1990 and is the department's lead trainer.

Sgt. Craig Patton, of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD), speaks with IndyStar in Indianapolis on June 30, 2020. Patton has been an Indianapolis K-9 officer since 1990 and is the department's lead trainer.

Still, as rare as accidental bites may be, Mitchum’s experience reveals how even the best-trained police dogs can fall short of their reputation as law enforcement mascots who are obedient and infallible tools of policing.

Sgt. Craig Patton, a veteran IMPD K-9 trainer, called Obi one of the most controllable and "perfect" dogs on the force, yet Obi bit Mitchum. K-9 trainers have long said police dogs are supposed to stop biting on command, yet Obi continued to bite Mitchum.

It wasn’t the first time that IMPD’s celebrity K-9 bit someone he should not have.

And, records show, it would not be the last.

k9_lando317: A girl and her dog

The image, in black and white, is intimate. Groce and Obi’s faces are close to the camera. She's smiling, the dog's tongue is peeking out. That picture was posted in May 2018, back when the account was brand new.

Then came Obi’s accidental rise to Instagram stardom. Within six months, Obi had 25,000 Instagram followers. (The account now has more than 85,000.)

Not bad for a police dog.

Obi, who was born in February 2014 in the Netherlands, ended up in Indiana by 2015, records show. That’s when IMPD spent $22,500 to buy Obi and two other dogs from Indiana-based Vohne Liche Kennels, one of the largest trainers and importers of police dogs in the U.S.

IMPD started using Obi by Dec. 15 of that year, records show. Groce initially worked with another dog, but said she stopped because he would transform into an "arm-eater" any time he heard a gunshot (and Groce said she wore the scars to prove it). So Obi became her new K-9.

The Instagram account came a couple years later, in 2018. It started just as something fun, Groce has said, but quickly grew into something larger.

IMPD Officer Molly Groce poses with her second K-9 partner, who she calls Lando, in a 2019 photo shared by the police department.

IMPD Officer Molly Groce poses with her second K-9 partner, who she calls Lando, in a 2019 photo shared by the police department.

It's not as if the bond between Groce and Obi was unusual. What she posted on social media could be replicated by most K-9 handlers. Like many people who have dogs at home, a police officer develops a close, emotional bond with her K-9. Unlike people with normal pets, though, officers such as Groce are also trusting their K-9s to help keep them safe.

For Groce, she saw an opportunity to represent police officers in a positive manner. Her personality shines through, especially without the filters of supervisors or the use of common cop jargon found in most police department social media accounts.

Over the years, Groce has featured other members of her household, including her five pet dogs, two step children and her husband, who she refers to as BOCH, or big ol cop husband.

Groce talks mostly about K-9s, though, especially in a way suited for online. Several videos and images contain common Internet parlance for dog-lovers, and memes in general. You can boop a K-9’s nose. There’s the Dolly Parton challenge (a K-9’s headshot on LinkedIn vs. its picture on Tinder, etc.), or the Ellen DeGeneres-style selfie except with a bunch of police officers. Groce has even recreated the popular meme of Kermit the Frog sipping tea, except it's Obi's snout in a white mug.

A screenshot of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer Molly Groce’s Instagram account included in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Gordon Mitchum against IMPD.

A screenshot of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer Molly Groce’s Instagram account included in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Gordon Mitchum against IMPD.

And through the K-9's Instagram fame, Groce found a way to help others. Yes, she posts goofy-looking pictures of her police dog, but she also raises money for people who have cancer, encourages people to register to vote and holds contests to send gifts to followers. She also publicly discusses what she’s described as past struggles with an eating disorder and a current journey to address an infertility concern.

"With this platform I have an opportunity, and sometimes feel a responsibility, to help others by being open and authentic on here," Groce wrote last January. "It opens you up to criticism and judgment, but also unexpected camaraderie, kindness, and joy."

There's no question that Obi's Instagram account provided a window into the life of a police officer and a K-9.

What the account did not always do, however, is capture an uncomfortable truth about police dogs.

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Obi is a weapon to be used on people.

k9_lando317: Some of you have been asking to see Obi’s bite work …

The caption attached to an Instagram video hinted that Obi’s followers may be able to see up-close what it looks like when a K-9 bites someone.

But it was a joke. In the video, posted on Christmas 2018, Groce walks toward Obi, who is sitting inside what appears to be a garage, eyes hopeful.

"OK, for Christmas I'm going to finally let you destroy this thing you've been waiting to destroy," Groce says. She hands him a plush Darth Vader toy while The Imperial March music plays in the background.

Some text meant to impersonate Obi’s voice then appears on the screen: "I will defeatz him and eat all his fluff."

"Oh my gosh that was adorably hilarious," one commenter wrote. "Aw obi. Good boy," another wrote.

It’s cute to watch Obi play. But his actual bite work, on people, is another matter.

Across the country, police dogs are biting thousands of people each year. After a K-9 bite, people are sometimes left with debilitating injuries and lifelong scars. While it's a rare outcome, a few people have even died.

Kenneth Licklider, an international police dog trainer who runs Vohne Liche Kennels, said centuries of domestication have resulted in today's dogs no longer wanting to bite people. So it can take several weeks to teach police dogs to overcome any reservation to attack humans and, instead, learn to bite them hard and fast.

Vohne Liche Kennels owner and trainer Ken Licklider talks about the importance of training and how a lack of it can lead to serious bites in the field.

That also means, over time, that police dogs will occasionally bite people they shouldn’t, including police officers. The dogs, simply put, are just doing what they've been trained to do.

For people who are accustomed to how patrol dogs are portrayed by police departments in media blitzes, or who only know of dogs like Obi through popular Instagram accounts, the truth about a K-9s work can be jarring. It feels like a contradiction.

"It's deceptive how they portray the dog to the public," said Nina Martinez, board chair of the Latino Civic Alliance, an advocacy group based in Washington state that is pushing for laws limiting the use of police dogs. "It's like using a weapon, a gun."

Martinez said she believes dogs can be helpful in finding people, but she draws the line at bites.

"They don't explain to the public what it's used for," she said. "Most people think the dogs are used for rescue or helping with drug enforcement."

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Police dogs are so risky that IMPD asks its handlers to take several precautions, including one requirement to keep the K-9s in outdoor kennels at the handlers' homes.

In a December 2018 Instagram post, Groce described another precaution when she brought Obi to a school classroom. Obi wore a muzzle.

"Isn’t Obi trained to distinguish between a bad guy and a 2nd grader?? Absolutely!" Groce wrote. "However, Obi is also trained as an apprehension dog who can bite, and after over three years working together he has many street bites and apprehensions."

Obi could not be trusted not to bite children. By that point, Obi had already bitten at least three people he should not have.

One was a 16-year-old girl living in Groce’s neighborhood, according to a court deposition. The girl tried to pet Obi one day.

Another was a sergeant on IMPD’s SWAT unit. He had been serving as back-up to Groce during a search.

The third was Mitchum, the elderly man who Obi attacked on his back porch.

Ella White, daughter of Gordon Mitchum, points out the path an IMPD K-9 officer walked outside Mitchum's home when searching for a suspect in a carjacking that ended on Mitchum's street, on July 6, 2020. "This is the way he always keeps the fence, so they had to have jumped over the fence," she said. White then described using bleach and water to clean up the blood left on her father's patio.

Ella White, daughter of Gordon Mitchum, points out the path an IMPD K-9 officer walked outside Mitchum's home when searching for a suspect in a carjacking that ended on Mitchum's street, on July 6, 2020. "This is the way he always keeps the fence, so they had to have jumped over the fence," she said. White then described using bleach and water to clean up the blood left on her father's patio.

Mitchum's daughter, 50-year-old Ella White, had to clean a pool of her father's blood from the pavement following the dog bite, and has been helping her father following the dog attack, including driving him to the doctor's office for follow-up treatment.

When IndyStar informed her that Obi had bitten at least four other people he should not have, including two before the dog encountered her father, White started crying on the phone.

"I saw what my dad had to go through after that happened," White said. "Being afraid to go outside. Being afraid of the dogs. Hard time sleeping. Having nightmares."

She went on: "It almost makes you feel helpless. Like there’s nothing that can be done," White said. "What does it take?"

In internal reports, IMPD supervisors said Groce erred in the Mitchum bite. She failed to see what was around an exterior corner of Mitchum’s home, supervisors said, before allowing Obi to dart there.

Obi cleared the corner first, found Mitchum and immediately did what patrol dogs do: He started biting.

Supervisors placed Groce on a remedial plan after the Mitchum bite, records show. The stakes suddenly grew higher for Groce and Obi.

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"And clearly there's no magic number of how many accidental bites you can have before we get rid of you," Patton said in an October 2019 court deposition, "but we told (Groce) that, you know, 'If this occurs again, then you're very likely going to be gone, out of here.'"

Jon Little, who is Mitchum's attorney, clarified: "Out of K-9?"

Patton confirmed: "Out of K-9."

k9_lando317:A huge thank you to everyone who has reached out in the last day with support. I thought it would make it more painful having to tell over 40,000 people about Obi...but in fact, your support made the day a little easier…

In another intimate picture, again in black and white, Groce is wearing her police uniform and a wide smile while hugging Obi tightly.

The Instagram post is from April 2019. The K-9 had remained Groce’s partner, even after three bad bites.

By April, though, two things had changed.

For the fourth time, Obi had bitten someone he should not have. This time it was Groce.

And IMPD supervisors took Obi away from her.

A screenshot of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer Molly Groce’s Instagram account included in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Gordon Mitchum against IMPD.

A screenshot of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer Molly Groce’s Instagram account included in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Gordon Mitchum against IMPD.

Losing Obi was a moment that Groce later described to Instagram followers as one of the "lowest of lows" she's experienced.

"Obi was getting reactive towards me (aggression)," Groce also wrote on Instagram. "He got some training, and it was decided it was best for him and me to go to a different handler."

Her followers shared in Groce's pain.

"I’m just sad right (now)," one wrote, "a big hug for you!"

"I was so very sad to watch your last video," another wrote, "and this picture you posted brought tears to my eyes."

Groce's Instagram posts did not tell the full story, particularly about the dog's bad bites.

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In a court deposition, Groce said she no longer felt comfortable handling Obi. One of her supervisors, Sgt. Patton, said Groce grew so afraid of Obi committing another bad bite that Groce had started making poor tactical decisions, such as keeping a shorter leash on the dog instead of allowing Obi to run ahead of her.

IMPD would not tell IndyStar when each of Obi's bad bites occurred. Nor would the department answer any questions about the bad bites, such as what care an IMPD officer receives after a bad bite. Two IMPD spokeswomen declined an IndyStar interview request and asked for questions by email. Then they referred the emailed questions to city attorneys, who by email also declined to answer any questions.

But one thing is clear: After Obi's fourth bad bite, supervisors reassigned the dog to a new handler, Sgt. Mark Fagan.

But Obi would bite again.

k9_lando317: I’ve had a lot of questions about when or if I was going to change this page’s name since I no longer have K9 Obi.

The video, posted in August 2019, begins with Obi's face appearing to smile at the camera. "Obi says it's time," the text reads. Then the video shows Groce changing the name of her Instagram account from K9 Obi to K9 Lando, and ends with a few frames of her new police dog's face.

Lando, a German shepherd, has been Groce's K-9 ever since Obi went to a new handler. For all the difficulty it was personally to lose one dog and acclimate to a new one, Groce found a way to make the change seamlessly on the Instagram account. You can now watch Lando, who is named after another Star Wars hero, posing while wearing a vest that contains a prominent emblem for the movie franchise's Rebel Alliance.

Groce continued representing law enforcement in a positive light, and her number of followers continued growing.

Yet Obi's star continued to fade.

By October 2019, within six months of his reassignment to Sgt. Fagan, Obi had been responsible for another bad bite. He bit another police officer, records show.

It was his fifth bad bite in just four years.

"There's a reason why these dogs trained to bite human flesh are not used as search and rescue dogs, right? There's no other purpose in a dog trained to bite humans," said Little, Mitchum's attorney. "You can't use Obi to go find a person in a collapsed building. You can't use Obi to go out and find a lost hiker. You can't use Obi to do anything other than bite human beings."

How IMPD decided to address the problem at the time is unknown. The department would not answer questions from IndyStar, including the exact date when this bite occurred.

But IMPD sent Obi into retirement on Aug. 28, 2020, almost a year later. An IMPD spokeswoman said Obi bit too many innocent people. The dog will not be replaced, the spokeswoman said, because the department is in the process of reforming the unit.

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She would not say why IMPD waited several months after the fifth bite, citing an ongoing lawsuit with Mitchum, the elderly bystander who Obi bit on his back porch. (That lawsuit in federal court is pending, but the city of Indianapolis is seeking to dismiss it without providing any relief to Mitchum, who said he's still grappling with the effects of his injuries.)

Retired police dogs often stay with their K-9 handlers, who are some of the only people equipped to handle the responsibility.

Even most shelters who specialize in adopting out working dogs will not accept patrol dogs like Obi, said Erik Hoffer, who runs a German Shepherd rescue operation in Florida.

The dogs are forever changed. They cannot unlearn to bite, Hoffer said.

Obi was fortunate enough to have a K-9 handler who agreed to take responsibility for him. Records show that Sgt. Fagan took ownership of Obi once the department got rid of the dog.

Whereas the ends of some patrol dogs' careers are punctuated with parades and parties—celebrations befitting the heroic status that communities assign to police dogs—Obi's retirement came quietly and without fanfare.

In some ways, it's a sad ending to a promising story for Obi, the celebrity dog who is forever changed by his training and his work on Indianapolis' streets.

Obi's fate, though, is better than some patrol dogs who are removed from police departments for biting the wrong people.

In October 2019, an attorney asked IMPD Sgt. Patton whether he had removed any dogs in recent years.

He had. A K-9 had been biting its handler too often.

"I can’t have any of my officers living like that," Patton said.

IMPD euthanized the dog.

Challen Stephens, Abbie VanSickle, Andrew Fan, Dana Brozost-Kelleher and Ellen Glover contributed to this story.

Design and development by Elan Kiderman, Katie Park and Gabe Isman.

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