Reporter Ryan Gabrielson has won a national award for excellence in police reporting for exposing the shoddy practices of an internal police force patrolling California’s developmental centers for the disabled.

Gabrielson, who covers law and order for California Watch and its parent organization, the Center for Investigative Reporting, won the 2013 Al Nakkula Award, named after a former Rocky Mountain (Colo.) News police reporter known for his dogged journalism. The award is presented by the University of Colorado, Boulder and the Denver Press Club.

Gabrielson won for his series Broken Shield, an 18-month investigation that uncovered systemic failures at the Office of Protective Services and prompted a criminal investigation, two new laws, staff retraining, policy changes and a management shake-up. A third bill was introduced last month.

He detailed widespread abuses inside the state’s five developmental centers. He also found that the police force charged with protecting some of the state’s most vulnerable wards almost never gets to the bottom of the abuses. Officers and investigators routinely wait too long to start investigations and fail to collect evidence. Gabrielson found that 36 documented rapes had occurred at these state facilities in recent years, but the Office of Protective Services didn’t order a single “rape kit” examination – a standard law enforcement investigatory tool.

“This is a tremendous recognition of Ryan’s outstanding work,” said Mark Katches, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s editorial director. “The Nakkula award honors the very best reporting in the nation focused on law enforcement.”

Broken Shield has already been honored with the 2013 George Polk Award for state reporting.

“This project had excellent reporting, clear and emotional writing and a definite positive impact,” on public policy, said contest judge Sandy Graham.

Added judge Kevin Flynn: “It was an exhaustive and thorough investigation.”

Until now, the award has been given only to a newspaper reporter.

Online investigative organizations like the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch “are a very important trend as traditional newspapers cut back on staff” and seek collaborators, contest judge Tustin Amole noted.

Graham, Amole and Flynn are all former colleagues of Nakkula.

Gabrielson will receive a $2,000 prize. Second place in the contest went to Peter Dujardin, a reporter at the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., for his series “Selling Smoke,” about a 19-month, $4 million police sting that failed to generate a single arrest.

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