By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
The use of drug detection dogs is controversial to say the least, with study after study finding that the dogs have an incredibly high margin for error, and that their presence can lead to dangerous drug-taking activity, such as ‘loading up’ and ‘pre-loading’, which has led to the deaths of several young people in music festivals across Australia.
Handling money or shaking a hand can lead to a positive indicatio
Now, a former police dog trainer has acknowledged that another problem is that while the animals are indeed able to detect the presence of drugs – a positive indication can be the result of residue from items such as currency or even a handshake with a person who used a substance, and not just the actual presence of drugs.
This information has bolstered the argument that a positive indication by a sniffer dog is not sufficient, by itself, to ground the ‘reasonable suspicion’ required to search a person.
Teenage girl strip searched after a positive indication, but nothing found
Just a couple of months ago, a teenager stood in front of the New South Wales Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), explaining that after a positive indication by a drug detection dog on her way into the Splendour in the Grass music festival last year, she was separated from her friends, and then taken, alone by police into a tent and strip searched. At the same hearing, a New South Wales police officer admitted that many of the strip searches undertaken at music festivals across the state may have been conducted illegally.
Many of these strip searches – a degrading and invasive procedure – have also been undertaken unnecessarily too, because they’re based on a positive indication by a drug detection dog, and various research shows that the dogs are wrong as much as two-thirds of the time, meaning the searches turn up nothing.
Sniffer dogs were introduced to New South Wales around the time of the Sydney Olympics, but even after two decades as part of the police armoury in the war against drugs, instead of catching drug suppliers, or deterring drug users and dealers, drug dog operations have led to tens of thousands of innocent people being subjected to the humiliation of strip searches.
High margin for error
Research from New South Wales shows that the margin for error of sniffer dogs as much as 63%. And here’s why: the purpose of police dogs is to detect people in possession of drugs. The problem is, the dogs are exceptionally sensitive to the scent of drugs, so much so, they are able to pick up minute traces of residual drugs, which could indicate any number of scenarios – perhaps previous use of drugs by a person, or even just that someone has touched drugs, or drug equipment, or a hand of another user, without actually ingesting drugs themselves.
Dave Wright, a former NSW Police dog trainer, explains that dogs are trained through a process of conditioning to recognise and indicate the odour of prohibited drugs.
He says that while the training is highly effective, ultimately it does mean that dogs are not necessarily able to tell the difference between a residual scent and the scent of someone actually in possession of drugs.
What’s more, he says, because the dogs are highly sensitised, it is possible that they will provide a positive indication if someone has been carrying drugs, if someone has had (even limited) contact with drugs in the past, or if, for example, they are carrying money that’s been previously handled by a drug user, or was in a confined space with drugs…. or any number of potential scenarios.
So, are drug dogs’ noses too sensitive to be successful?
If police are using an indication by a sniffer dog as the sole basis to justify ‘reasonable grounds’ to search a person, isn’t it then also possible to arguable that the rates of strip searches that result in a positive finding of drugs are not substantial enough to support grounds for a strip search simply on suspicion?
Over the last five years, reports have indicated that the use of strip searches by NSW police following a positive indication from a drug detection dog has increased markedly.
Under New South Wales law, police can search you if they have a ‘suspicion on reasonable grounds’ that you have drugs on you at that particular time.
However, when the NSW Government passed the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001 (‘the Dogs Act’), The Act had a built-in review provision, whereby the Ombudsman would evaluate its effectiveness after two years.
The review was released mid-way through 2006. It had examined 470 drug dog operations over two years. It also found that prohibited drugs were located in only 26 per cent of the recorded positive indications by drug dogs.
Are there better ways to handle drug possession and use?
Furthermore, of the 10,211 positive indications made, there were only 19 successful prosecutions for drug supply – which represented 0.19 per cent of those searched.
The review concluded that “the use of drug detection dogs has proven to be an ineffective tool for detecting drug dealers” and with regard to the question of whether a positive indication by a drug dog is ‘reasonable suspicion’ for a police search, the report broadly concluded that: “Given the low rate of detecting drug offences following a drug detection dog indication, it is our view, supported by Senior Counsel’s advice, that it is not sufficient for a police officer to form a reasonable suspicion that a person is in possession or control of a prohibited drug solely on this basis.”
Despite these findings that drug detection dogs are ineffective, the number of searches performed after positive indications has continued to increase dramatically.
Figures recently obtained by the Greens MLC David Shoebridge via freedom of information (FOI) laws revealed that the number of strip searches conducted by police following a dog indication have almost doubled: up from 590 in 2016 to 1,124 in 2017.
While the LECC is continuing to investigate strip searches, with a view to understanding how and why these are being conducted by police and whether or not they are being carried out within the specific guidelines of the law, late last year the Redfern Legal Centre, also launched its Safe and Sound campaign, aiming to reduce the high number of strip searches at music festivals and at other places. It’s also agitating to have the current laws changed, so that police officers have more guidance and the public is better safeguarded.
Of course, this also begs the question of whether or not there’s a better response to the war on drugs and certainly at events such as music festivals harm minimisation measures such as pill testing is still being advocated for.
So far, the New south Wales government has remained steadfast with its outdated ‘just say no’ to drugs view, but the outcome of the LECC inquiry into strip searches and the recent Coronial inquiry into drug -related deaths at music festivals may be successful in finally bringing some more options to the table. Options that aren’t as expensive, as invasive, and which preliminary research shows are more effective. Because what we do know, is that the current ‘zero tolerance’ policy is not working.