Recent figures show the number of drug dog searches being carried out by NSW police is in decline.
In 2015, police performed 12,893 searches compared with 14,541 in 2014. This represents an 11 percent decrease in the space of a year.
However, the rate of false positive searches – where an indication made by a dog results in no drugs being found – is still extremely high. In around 69 percent of searches carried out last year, police didn’t find any illicit substances.
This means that 8,874 individuals were subjected to invasive searches by police in public, when they weren’t committing any offence.
The implications of the data
The new figures were obtained by NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge under the provisions of the NSW Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009.
The data suggests that in 2015, the number of drug dog searches conducted in the state are the lowest since the NSW Greens began publishing figures about them in 2011.
Mr Shoebridge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers® the new figures show two things. Firstly, the “extraordinarily” high false positive rates display “the continuing uselessness of the drug dog program.”
And secondly, they show how effective five years of bad press has been. “The search numbers have fallen by 20 percent since we first informed the public about the false positive rates and then more recently with the success of Sniff Off,” Mr Shoebridge said.
The Sniff Off campaign
The Sniff Off campaign is a NSW Greens initiative designed to end the use of drug detection dogs without a warrant in public places. Established in 2014, the campaign is designed to build public awareness about the ineffectiveness sniffer dogs, as well as to bring about legislative change.
On May 28 last year, NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong introduced the Amendment (Sniffer Dogs-Repeal of Powers) Bill before parliament. If it had been passed, the bill would have revoked NSW police powers to carry out drug dog searches in places like train stations and music festivals.
There’s also a Sniff Off Facebook page that allows members of the community to alert others to the whereabouts of sniffer dog operations. People can either post a warning directly onto the page or send a message to admin.
The page now has over 22,500 likes, which means there are many individuals out there monitoring NSW police drug dog operations.
According to Mr Shoebridge, the public’s involvement is contributing to the steep decline in sniffer dog searches in NSW.
“That has clearly made the police more careful in their use of drug dog operations,” he said, adding “the high false positive rates are so embarrassing that they’ve forced the police to refocus their operations.”
The sniffer dog search figures
As mentioned, the false positive rate in 2015 was 69 percent. In both 2013 and 2014, the rate was 73 percent, and for 2012 it was 72 percent.
The largest expansion of drug dog operations over recent years has been the NSW Police Transport Command, who patrol the CityRail network. The figures show that last year, of the 3,275 drug dog searches conducted by the command, 73 percent turned up no drugs.
The figures also show – as they have in the past – certain areas are being targeted by police, despite low rates of drugs being found. Out of the 76 Police Local Area Commands, Redfern and Liverpool are in the top ten for searches, but in the bottom ten for drugs actually being found.
In the case of Redfern, Mr Shoebridge has pointed out it’s obvious the area “isn’t awash in drugs, but we do know it has a large population of young people and a vibrant Aboriginal community.”
Sniffer dogs at festivals
The use of sniffer dogs at music festivals has come under public scrutiny in recent years. Rather than acting as a deterrent to drug taking, harm minimisation activists argue that the dogs lead festival goers to partake in dangerous drug taking practices.
These practices include preloading, which is when a person takes all their drugs before arriving at an event to avoid detection. Another common practice is the hiding of drugs in body cavities in packaging such as condoms.
The death of James Munro at Defqon 1 in 2013 is believed to be a case of panic overdosing. Munro is said to have taken all his drugs at once when he saw the sniffer dog operation at the festival.
On August 31 this year, an Australian Greens motion passed before the federal Senate calling for the introduction of a range of harm minimisation measures, including banning the use of sniffer dogs at festivals and the introducing pill testing.
The 2006 Ombudsman report
The powers governing the use of drug detection dogs in NSW were clarified and expanded by the 2001 Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act. Upon the introduction of the Act, the NSW Ombudsman was asked to monitor the use of sniffer dogs.
The 2006 Ombudsman’s report found that the use of drug dogs was an “ineffective tool” which led to “public searches of individuals in which no drugs were found.” It reported that 74 percent of people searched had no drugs on them, and drug users were engaging in risky behaviour to avoid detection.
But as Mr Shoebridge explained at the time, the report was “roundly ignored” as there was no community awareness. “We’ve built that campaign now. We’ve built that community,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers® over the phone. “So the information that we consistently put out has got a receptive audience.”
A spokesperson for NSW police did not address the impact the Sniff Off campaign on drug dog operations, claiming the dogs are an effective resource when targeting the “use and supply of deadly illegal drugs… [which are] the root cause of crime.”
“While search figures routinely fluctuate each year,” the spokesperson told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, “we will continue our efforts to target illegal drugs and the devastating impact they have on our community.”
The next step
With drug dog searches in decline and increasing public awareness about their ineffectiveness, Shoebridge believes the change in mindset that is now needed to end operations is likely to come from police.
“Police on the ground are increasingly wary about calling in the drug dogs because they know the damage it does to community relations,” Shoebridge explained. “We’re more likely to have an enlightened approach coming out of the NSW police, than the NSW parliament.”
Image credit: Sydney Morning Herald
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.