Australia Needs to Talk About Drug Sniffing Dogs

While NSW police figures show exceedingly low drug conviction rates, some say they target minorities and may even lead to higher instances of overdose.

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Mar 27 2015, 2:20pm
The New South Wales (NSW) Police drug dog presence at the 2015 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was substantial, as it was in previous years. After having marched in the parade Tom, who prefers to keep his last name private, made his way to the after-party. The 28-year-old health industry worker arrived at the Moore Park event wearing a large backpack, only to be confronted by an officer with a dog.

"The handler was on the other side of the crowd. He made eye contact with me. I was nowhere near the dog, but as I was walking in and joined the line, he walked through the crowd towards me. He put his hand on my backpack before the dog even indicated and then the dog sat down," he told VICE.

Tom was then led away by police officers to a tent nearby, where he was subjected to persistent questioning and his bag was searched. He was then told to take off his clothes and squat before the officers. No drugs were found on him, as he didn't have any.

"It's anxiety provoking. I know a lot of people who avoid major parties like that because of the sniffer dogs, even if they're not planning on taking any drugs," Tom said. "If you have drugs or not, there's still the potential there to take you off and subject you to that humiliating experience."

But the LGBTQI community is not the only marginalized group to be targeted by the NSW Police Dog Unit.

Last year, NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge obtained figures from the NSW Police Minister outlining that in 2013 17,746 people were searched by police after being indicated by dogs. And of these searches 64 to 72 percent were false indications, where no drugs were found. In cases where drugs were found most were of small amounts for personal use, with only 2.44 percent of positive searches resulting in a supply conviction.

"There are people being heavily over policed by the use of drug dogs. A passenger getting off at Redfern station is six and a half times more likely to be searched than a passenger getting off at Central. What distinguishes those populations is that Redfern has a very large Aboriginal population and a large young student population," Shoebridge said. "Redfern is over policed. They've got a higher false positive rate and a lower detection rate."

Ray Jackson, president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, said Redfern station is the most heavily searched area by drug dogs in Sydney. And while there are a lot of university students, the police mainly target Aboriginal people, especially the youth. "The coppers use this as a tool to further harass people. There have been instances where they've been taken from Redfern station over to the police station and they've been stripped searched and nothing is generally found. So I don't know why they continue to do it," he said.

Jackson, a Wiradjuri man, explained police are also conducting dog searches in and around the Department of Housing blocks in nearby Waterloo. Tenants, visitors, and tradespeople are all subject to being searched and this is terrifying some of the older tenants.

Over the last three years, the largest expansion of drug dog operations has been the NSW Police Transport Command, who patrol the City Rail network. These searches have resulted in an 80 percent false positive rate. According to Will Tregoning, director of harm reduction organization Unharm, these searches are more likely to target people from a lower socioeconomic background, who have more tendency to be using public transport.

"Someone sees the drug dog operation and takes all their drugs at once in order to avoid detection, which was clearly implicated in the death of James Munro at Defqon 1 in 2013." - Will Tregoning

Drug dog operations are also commonly carried out at music festivals and dance parties, with accounts of up to six dogs being deployed at one event, accompanied by 50 to 60 officers. Tregoning warns that such operations rarely deter attendees from taking illicit drugs but more often have other effects that increase the risk of overdose.

"Preloading, taking all your drugs before you go to an event in order to avoid detection, is very risky behavior," he told VICE, going on to outline the risk of panic-based overdose. "Someone sees the drug dog operation and takes all their drugs at once in order to avoid detection, which was clearly implicated in the death of James Munro at Defqon 1 in 2013."

Further adverse effects are instances where people swallow bags containing drugs, which can subsequently burst. Others may switch to less detectable substances, which can lead to people moving away from relatively harmless drugs such as marijuana to substances such as GHB, which is potentially more harmful.

A spokesperson for NSW Police told VICE that the Dog Unit deploys dogs when requested by local area and specialist commands for operations at public events, on the public transport network and at licensed premises.

"Drug detection dogs are effective at identifying the presence of odor of prohibited drugs," the spokesperson said. "Drugs are a major contributing factor to crime across NSW, therefore any and all efforts by NSW Police to detect prohibited drugs is worthwhile."

But Shoebridge believes drug dog operations are being conducted so that police and the government can be seen to be taking effective action against drugs, in order to appease certain segments of the community.

"They know it has no impact on supply. They know it has adverse impacts in terms of users responding by preloading or by consuming their drugs in an instant when they see the dogs. This is about being seen to do something on the war on drugs that they are patently losing," he said.

This last summer season of music festivals has been notable for large scale drug dog operations. The standard operating procedures for NSW Police outline that every dog deployed at an event must be accompanied by 12 officers. Shoebridge feels this is an extraordinary misallocation of police resources that could be better directed to public safety in other areas where it is needed.

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