Let’s talk about drug dogs

Every year, thousands of people in NSW are stopped and searched by police with sniffer dogs in pubs, at train stations, at festivals, and in other public places.

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The current law allows these searches to happen without a warrant. 

The dogs are used to identify potential suspects. And while the dogs are trained to pinpoint individuals carrying drugs, they often don’t get it right. 

The vast majority of searches conducted after a dog gives a ‘positive’ indication are ‘false-positives’ – which means no drugs are found. There are a whole lot of reasons given for this – ranging from the potential that someone had been around drugs in the past little while and still had the scent on them, through to the potential that the dogs take signals from their handlers and the body language of those around them, which causes them to act in a certain way. 

Whatever the reasons or justifications for this high number of ‘false positives’, the fact of the matter is that of the 14,593 searches conducted in 2014 based on a positive indication from a sniffer dog, drugs were found in only 3,830 cases.  

That means more than 10,000 innocent people – people who were not carrying drugs and had done nothing wrong – were subjected to an intrusive public search by police with no warrant for no justifiable reason. The program has also been shown to be an ineffective tool for detecting drug dealers. 

Each public search is an encroachment on the basic right of people to a presumption of innocence. It is also a clear violation of people’s civil liberties. Some might say that it’s a small price to pay to be stopped and searched by the police for no reason at all when you haven’t done anything wrong, to ensure that we do catch those that are guilty. But this is a very slippery slope. Where do we draw the line? 

Being stopped and asked to empty the contents of your bag or your pockets is bad enough. But what about being strip searched? In 624 cases people were subjected to highly invasive and humiliating strip searches. Drugs were found in less than 40% of those searches. 

A former director of a national Australian music festival told us about the heavy police presence and intimidation that she witnessed outside her events. 

She said, “I was present at every festival, always around the gates before and at opening time, and watched every time with absolute dismay and horror as the police and their dogs intimidated the young kids (mostly 18-25 y.o.) coming to the festival to have a good time. So many of those kids were strip searched by the police as a result of a sniffing dog. And then let go.” 

Some claim that if you have nothing to hide, you have no need for concern. However, being stopped and searched by police in a way that suggests that you have committed a crime can be extremely distressing, even when you know you have done nothing wrong. 

I have heard countless stories from the young, the elderly, people with a disability, and people from diverse cultural backgrounds about the fear they have felt when confronted by dark blue overall-wearing police with dogs at train stations. 

This is not surprising, given the figures on where the searches are conducted and the results of those searches. The data shows that the program is not only ineffective, but that it also unfairly targets members of our community that are already marginalised. 

If you use Redfern Station you are six and a half times more likely to be searched than if you use Central Station, even though searches conducted at Redfern have the highest false positive rate for sniffer dog indications of any area. 

Redfern is an area with a long, strong and proud connection with Sydney’s Aboriginal community, who have consistently faced the brunt of over-policing and disproportionate law and order agendas. It is an ethnically diverse area, with more than half of residents being born overseas. It is also an area with a high proportion of young people, students, artists and low-income residents who live in nearby public and community housing. 

These are the communities most vulnerable to being unfairly targeted, as they can often lack access to the resources needed to fight discriminatory practices. 

While it is entirely reasonable for police to use detection dogs in cases where they have been issued a warrant, the arbitrary use of sniffer dogs to target whole communities is not acceptable. That’s why we have been campaigning to end the use of sniffer dogs without a warrant, and why we introduced a Bill to the NSW Parliament to repeal the NSW drug dog detection program. 

The Greens have been opposing the arbitrary use of sniffer dogs for years, since now Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon spoke out against the Bill when introduced By the former state Labor Government. Our opposition since then has grown, based on evidence, independent reviews and serious concerns around civil liberties. More recently, with the very successful Sniff Off campaign, and with work done by NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge we have continued to highlight why the use of drug detection dogs needs to end.  

We are not alone in holding concerns about the ineffectiveness and intimidatory nature of this program. 

As far back as 2006, the NSW Ombudsman recommended the program be ceased, reporting that “findings have led us to question whether the Drug Dogs Act will ever provide a fair, efficacious and cost effective tool to target drug supply.” 

Our current Bill to repeal the Drug Detection Dog Program has the support of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties who say: 

“It targets users not the criminal suppliers. The dogs have a high rate of false positive causing public embarrassment to many. It provokes persons carrying drugs to consume them sometimes at great risk to health. It results in few convictions. There is no evidence that it deters drug use.” 

While successive governments have tried to make us believe that this program is an essential part of the ‘war on drugs’, the evidence tells a very different story.

And that’s why we need to talk about it.

Jenny Leong is the Greens member for Newtown and a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly.