The NSW Police Force conducted an unprecedented drug detection operation across Newtown last weekend, with reports of sniffer dogs in bars and venues throughout the electorate.
According to the ‘Sniff Off’ Facebook page, drug dog units were spotted patrolling Enmore Road, King Street, Newtown and Sydenham stations, Camperdown park, the Enmore theatre, and inside several major bars. While it is unclear what triggered the operation, some speculate that it was a response to the recent anti-sniffer dog legislation proposed by Newtown MP Jenny Leong.
“The heavy police use of drug dogs in Newtown, Petersham, Enmore and Marrickville today and yesterday is probably not at all related to Jenny Leong standing up to police trolls.” the page’s administrator sarcastically posted on Saturday night.
“Such petty behaviour proves police are nothing more than an organized squad of public servant thugs who have forgotten who they are really supposed to serve. It might be just a job but those doing it ought to be ashamed.” another member of the group wrote.
Under the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 and Tattoo Parlours Act 2012, police are able to use sniffer dogs at train stations, bars, tattoo parlours, and festivals. Ms Leong’s legislation would require them to get a warrant before doing so.
Why are the Greens trying to change Sniffer Dog policy?
Leong and her supporters argue that without court oversight, the use of sniffer dogs has become a significant civil liberties violation – with thousands of innocent people being subjected to invasive and humiliating searches following false-identifications by sniffer dogs.
“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.” the MP wrote in a recent SBS op-ed.
“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.”
The sniffer dog program is seen as an ineffective way to target drug suppliers, with the overwhelming majority of those facing drug charges as a result of drug detection operations being found with minor amounts of prohibited substances. The program has also been criticised for being extremely expensive, tying up police resources and leading to dangerous drug taking behaviours such as ‘loading up’ – where users consume a large quantity of drugs just before an event, or inside an event when they see police approaching.
Despite these criticisms, the police are staunchly resisting attempts to repeal their use, with Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione ruling out any change to the sniffer dog program.
Following calls for a review into their use last year, Scipione told ABC news:
“There are many that continue to this day to call for less police interaction, fewer drug dogs, in fact, no drug dogs, fewer police at these events. That will never happen.”
Current Oversight Mechanisms for Sniffer Dogs
Last year, Greens MP David Shoebridge obtained a copy of the NSW Police Force’s Standard Operating Procedure for drug detection dog use. It outlines the circumstances under which police are able to use sniffer dogs to conduct searches.
At the outset, police are told that gathering intelligence, and having a specific purpose for carrying out any operation, is crucial to preventing arbitrary deployments:
“Obviously, there has to be an identified drug problem to warrant the planning and execution of a drug detection dog operation,” the booklet says.
However, looking back at where dog operations have been carried out in the past, it many dispute that this advice has actually been followed.
In 2014, it was revealed that commuters passing through Redfern station were 6.5 times more likely to be targeted by sniffer dog units, despite the station recording lower numbers of drug arrests than other nearby stations.
David Porter, a solicitor from the Redfern Legal Centre, says there is clearly a bias against the suburb.
“Redfern is disproportionately targeted, but from the evidence, it is hard to see why,” he said.
“It doesn’t have a higher strike rate. It doesn’t have the higher passenger numbers. The evidence does not explain the way the program is run in Redfern – if you’re not using evidence to inform your decisions, you’re probably using prejudice.”
To Mr Porter and many others, this type of irregularity is a clear sign that better oversight is needed.
Police Bite Back On Sniffer Dog Reform
The resistance to this oversight took a nasty turn last week, when several police officers, detectives, and even managers, were caught posting homophobic and sexually degrading comments to Leong’s Facebook page. “One condom could have prevented all of this from happening” wrote one police officer.
“The whole idea of the police being above politics, and being there as someone you can go to when you’re in trouble… that image has been tarnished” Shoebridge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers in an exclusive interview this week.
“If there’s one pertinent feature to the Police’s response that has been missed, it’s that Police Commissioner Scipione has not said a word about it. Ordinarily, he rushes out into the media with statements, and on this he’s been dead silent. In my view it’s consistent with what I see as a highly politicised Police Commissioner in New South Wales, and I think that’s highly troubling.”
The last two decades have seen the police gain significant influence over government policy, with the Commissioner and powerful Police Association regularly flexing their muscle to bring about greater powers and funding.
During a pay dispute in 2009, police across the state went on strike and refused to issue fines for minor offences, a move that cost the Government $2 million. Two years later, they were exempted from a general pay freeze across the state’s public service.
The police campaign against sniffer dog reform appears to be just another example of using bullying tactics to shape public policy, despite the overwhelming evidence that such operations are ineffective and dangerous.