NSW Police have confirmed that several men found trolling the Facebook page of an anti-drug detection dog campaign are police officers. The Sniff Off campaign posts alerts on the social media site tipping off their followers to the presence of police dogs at locations, such as train stations and music festivals. Last week, representatives of Sniff Off contacted VICE with allegations that police officers had been lying about the whereabouts of sniffer dogs on their page.
At 3:50 PM on February 29 this year, admins on the Sniff Off page posted an alert saying there was a drug dog at Sydney's Sydenham station. Two men –who we'll refer to as Tony and Justin to keep their anonymity – posted multiple comments denying the dog was there. A few members of the public refuted this, insisting the dog was still present.
Eventually, the admin posted a message suggesting to Tony that he may have missed the dog as "multiple sources" had confirmed its presence. Then a third man—we'll call Andrew—responded saying those sources needed to "get off the gear."
During the exchange, Justin also posted a meme in the thread with what appears to be a police dog typing at a desk. The text reads, "Saw bad man. Bit bad man. End of report."
Sniff Off admins investigated the matter further and found all three men were Facebook friends. Suspecting these men might be police, they conducted a Google search, which turned up two articles identifying both Tony and Justin as NSW Police officers. However, no information was uncovered about Andrew.
On the afternoon in question, Sniff Off received messages from four different people notifying them about the dog at Sydenham station. One of those sources was Mina Templeton, an inner west local who was on her way home. She assured VICE that she was "100 percent sure" the dog was there that day and it was accompanied by about 20 police officers.
"I think it's intimidating. I don't think you need to have 20 cops and one dog," said Templeton, who works in the financial sector. "I mean all they're going to find is people with joints or small quantities." Templeton says she believe sniffer dogs are an annoyance, and that's why she alerts Sniff Off whenever she comes across them.
Another witness, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that from memory the dog was a yellow Labrador. The 23-year-old Padstow resident, who works in sales, recalls two police officers walking down onto one of the platforms to speak with a man. "They were either taking down details or issuing a ticket as they were writing in a notebook," she said.
On March 7 it happened again. This time a drug detection dog was reported at Liverpool Station. An hour after the alert was posted, Andrew commented that he'd been at the station an hour prior and "there wasn't a dog there." Then Justin chimed in stating there was no dog.
A NSW Greens initiative, the Sniff Off campaign was established in October 2014. They believe the practice of randomly searching people using drug detection dogs is an affront to civil liberties.
Over recent months, the Sniff Off Facebook page has been gaining in popularity with a five-fold increase in likes, and today sits around 10,700. This has led to more frequent drug dog reports and, in turn, warnings being posted.
Sniff Off is run out of the office of NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge. He's outraged the individual officers made the comments on the Facebook page, especially as they didn't identify who they were. But he also sees it as positive proof their campaign is having an impact.
"It's unacceptable for any NSW Police officer to lie about police operations in a public forum," Shoebridge said and added that they're aware "the police are troubled by the success" of Sniff Off, but they "didn't expect this sort of behaviour."
Shoebridge routinely asks the NSW police minister for the statistics surrounding drug dog operations. The latest figures highlighted that of the 14,593 positive indications by sniffer dogs between January and December 2014, illicit drugs were only found in 3,830 cases. That's a 74 percent false positive rate. Shoebridge also stressed that the NSW Police Transport Command got it wrong about 80 percent of the time in 2014: of the 3,592 searches they undertook, 2,871 found no drugs
The use of sniffer dogs at music festivals has also been widely criticised. Will Tregoning, director of harm reduction group Unharm, has pointed out that their presence leads people to partake in dangerous drug taking practices: such as preloading or panic dumping of drugs, as well as hiding packages of drugs in internal body cavities.
Prominent members of the community have been publicly calling for the removal of sniffer dogs from festivals and for the introduction of pill testing: a far more effective method of dealing with people's drug use.
Currently, NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong has an anti-sniffer dog bill before parliament. If passed, it will bring about the end to police drug dog operations. Shoebridge asserts that the parliamentary work is important, but it can't bring about change alone. "Sniff Off is about building a mass movement that will force a majority of MPs to end the drug dog experiment," he said.
In response to questions regarding the Facebook post incidents NSW Police provided VICE with the following statement: "NSW Police is aware of the officers' comments on the Facebook page, and a commander will be speaking with the officers involved."
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