Big flaw in ‘dirty’ police practice
Depending on who you ask, sniffer dogs either ensure the public safety of Australians or destroy it.
Some see them as a symbol of excessive policing and the increased violation of your civil liberties.
Others argue that as long as you're not taking or carrying drugs, you should have nothing to worry about.
Many festivalgoers and legal experts described the process as "traumatic", "dehumanising" and "dirty".
You might think this is a fair price to pay for keeping our streets safe, and keeping Australia's illegal drug trade to a minimum.
The trouble is, it's not exactly working.
BIG MYTH ABOUT SNIFFER DOGS
In the early 2000s, NSW became the first state to introduce drug detection dugs.
Their aim, according to police, was to "target drug supply" and "attack the root causes of drugs" in society.
In other words, their purpose was to track dealers and crack down on Australia's $9.3 billion underground illicit drug market.
But almost 20 years later, experts say this experiment has failed.
Australia now has the world's highest rate of drug policing - that is, the highest rate of drug users who have reported an encounter with police.
According to the 2019 Global Drug Survey, sniffer dogs are the most common form of policing, followed by stop-and-search, police warnings and roadside drug tests.
According to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission's recent Illicit Drug Data Report, one Australian is arrested every four minutes for illicit drugs.
This all sounds pretty good, right? We're stopping drug dealers! We're keeping meth off our streets! We're thinking of the children!
But get this - the use of ecstasy and crystal meth is on the rise in both capital cities and regional areas, and the consumption of ecstasy and heroin in capital cities have hit their highest level in the past seven years.
At the same time, the Rethinking Strip Searches by NSW Police report, commissioned by Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) and released last week, revealed the number of strip-searches conducted in NSW has increased almost 20-fold over the past 12 years, from 277 times in 2006 to 5483 in 2018.
The RLC report found police suspicion that a person possessed prohibited drugs accounted for 91 per cent of all recorded strip-searches, yet only 30 per cent of searches resulted in a charge.
More than 80 per cent of these were for personal possession rather than intent to supply.
Long story short - drug dogs and strip searches are on the rise, but so is drug consumption. What's the go?
'DRUG DOGS ARE NOT AN EFFECTIVE DETERRENT'
RMIT University legal studies lecturer Dr Peta Malins said sniffer dogs ultimately failed to fulfil their purpose of striking the heart of the underground drug trade.
Instead of catching dealers, they catch low-level users who might bring a single joint or a pill to a yearly festival.
"The key thing I found is drug dogs are not deterring people from using drugs," she told news.com.au.
"A lot of research shows dogs have evolved over a long period of time to be very responsible to subtle human cues - the police handlers will be cuing dogs in various ways.
"The problem with applying this to a real-life environment is the biases police can bring with them. The appearance of a person, for example. All sorts of stereotypes about what a drug user is."
Dr Malins said there were too many external factors at play that contribute to the dogs' lack of reliability. At a crowded event, dogs tried to sniff out drugs in an environment with lots of noise, people who might have residual drug smells on them and unrelated smells. Things as seemingly trivial as the dog's mood and the weather could also impact accuracy.
Researchers have estimated that a positive dog leads to people finding drugs 20 to 40 per cent of the time.
News.com.au spoke to numerous young festivalgoers last week - who had been stripsearched despite not having any drugs - and who said the process was "dehumanising" and "traumatising".
Some, who were survivors of sexual assault, said the process triggered this trauma.
The presence of drug dogs has also been proved to spark risky behaviour. Dr Malins said it was not uncommon for people to "preload" - take extra drugs before an event so they don't have to carry them in - which carries a risk of overdosing.
"One of the most dangerous things is panicking," she said. "Some people turn up with drugs, hoping dogs won't be there. They see a dog, they panic, and they decide to take everything at once. There have been at least two overdose fatalities linked by coroners to that panicking."
She also spoke with people who experienced a lot of "anxiety and stress" from searches, noting that the experience carried on during the event and afterwards.
IS THERE A USEFUL PLACE FOR DRUG DOGS?
Some experts say drug dogs are most useful for their original purpose: to catch criminal dealers rather than small-time users.
National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre criminologist Dr Caitlin Hughes said drug dogs largely focused on the latter.
In her findings, consumer offences were most detected on weekends in licensed premises, public transport or in public places. Supply offences were most detected midweek in residential premises.
But only 10.9 per cent of all drug dog deployments were at the latter - compared to 83.3 per cent in public spaces.
"Our research provides the first evidence that if dogs were deployed differently - less at recreational settings and more at residential premises with the use of a warrant - they could be more effective at detecting drug suppliers," she said.
"When police dogs are deployed at residential premises, suppliers are detected in 52.5 per cent of incidents. In contrast, suppliers are only detected in 5.9 per cent and 13.4 per cent of incidents when dogs are deployed on public transport or at licensed premises, respectively."
Dr Malins says this needs to change. "Most of the problems associated with drug dogs don't apply if we're talking about using them to locate where drugs are hidden in a place where police already have a warrant," she said. "The problem is when they're using in the public and event contexts - train stations, parks, streets, festivals."
COPS SAY DOGS ARE VITAL FOR COMMUNITY SAFETY
Police authorities stand by the use of drug dogs and strip-searches, arguing it's an effective way to ensure community safety.
But some of their statistics have been called into question by experts.
"Drug-detection dogs are a vital tool for detection of drugs, particularly at large-scale events," a spokesperson for NSW Police told news.com.au. "Over the last five years, in 85 per cent of searches (and 82 per cent of strip searches) following a drug-detection dog indication, either drugs were found on the person or the person admitted to recent use or possession."
These statistics are incongruous with separate research conducted by the Redfern Legal Centre, Sniff Off and the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, which all argued the figure of "false positives" was far higher.
One explanation is that the stat conflates people possessing drugs - which is something for which they can be formally charged - with people admitting to recent use or possession, which is not an offence.
Samantha Lee, solicitor and head Redfern Legal Centre's police accountability practice, said: "This figure is misleading, because admitting to recent use or possession of drugs is not an offence.
"To be charged with possession of a prohibited drug police must prove a person knowingly had possession of the drug at the time of their interaction with police.
"Also, the mere possession of a prohibited drug on its own would not meet the legal requirements of 'serious' and urgent' to conduct a strip search."
Dr Malins agreed it was disingenuous to conflate the two into one statistic.
"We've found that people are very anxious and very keen to get out of those situations as soon as possible, and so my feeling on it is if they say they can get away faster, they'll open up and say, 'Oh, well I did actually smoke some weed last weekend', or 'I was around drugs earlier in the night'," Dr Malins SAID. "Legally speaking, that should not be a reason to stop someone."
News.com.au put a series of other questions to NSW Police regarding the number of strip-search operations at Central station, the number of strip-searches conducted in NSW overall, and the cost of running operations involving drug dogs.
A spokesperson for NSW Police said the force detected illicit drugs on 1553 occasions during field strip-searches last year.
"Police officers do not enjoy carrying out strip-searches, but it is a power that has been entrusted to us and searches reveal drugs and weapons," a spokesperson said.
"People who are trying to hide such items frequently secrete them in private places, and the only way to locate them is by a strip-search, which may involve asking the person to squat.
"Police are trained not to rely solely on a drug-detection dog indication when they exercise their search powers."
Police also said strip-searches were only carried out in a minority of cases, but did not comment on their increase over the past decade.
"Field strip-searches represent fewer than 1 per cent of the total number of all searches in NSW. Only about 20 per cent of strip-searches are initiated following a drug-detection dog indication. The majority of person searches carried out by police are not strip-searches.
"Training for police in how to undertake a person search occurs at the Police Academy and is reinforced in a number of forums throughout an officer's career."
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