Back in the old days, when people held music festivals, it used to be a time of great merriment. Youths could freely turn up to such events, where they were assured of having a grand time, as they forgot about the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives for a while.
But, those times have passed. Today, young people turning up to festivals have to run the gauntlet of NSW police drug dog operations, which means regardless of whether they’re in possession of illicit drugs for personal use or not, they’re just as likely to get indicated by a drug dog.
And this probably sounds about police state enough. But, not according to the force, as running dogs and searching the innocent didn’t satisfy its hunger. So, these days, it’s thrown in the dreaded strip searches. And this means sixteen-year-old kids are being taken out the back and told to disrobe.
A light in troubled times
That’s why in a jurisdiction like NSW, we’re lucky to have an organisation like Sniff Off. A collaboration between NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge and the NSW Young Greens, the anti-drug dog campaign has been keeping NSW police accountable since 2011.
For a decade now, Sniff Off has been collecting police data that reveals searches as a result of dog indications turn up absolutely nothing two-thirds to three-quarters of the time. And the Sniff Off Facebook page has been tipping off the public as to the whereabouts of dog operations.
The grassroots campaign has also been out at festivals: raising public awareness around civil liberties incursions, and informing youths about their rights, because officers have been found to be abusing their powers, especially when it comes to the use of strip searches.
Help with ditching the dogs
In the face of rising abuse of police powers, Sniff Off is making a concerted effort to make it out to as many events as it can this summer festival season, so as to inform as many punters as possible of their rights. And the campaign is actively searching for new volunteers right here.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke with a Sniff Off coordinator about the launch of the new festival campaign at FOMO last weekend, what they thought about the NSW state coroner’s recommendation to ditch the dogs, and why you should consider joining the citizens’ rights group.
Firstly, over the last weekend, Sniff Off campaigners were out advising festivalgoers about their rights at the FOMO in Parramatta. How did that go? And what was the policing at the event like?
It was our largest turnout of volunteers yet. So, it was great. There was a lot of positive responses from the crowd. There was a lot of people who knew about Sniff Off already. And they were ready to support the idea of ending strip searches and the drug dog program.
The policing at the event was really heavy handed. There were between five and seven drug dogs at the event, which is extreme. Photos showed that there were at least 30 officers there.
This is really heavy handed, especially considering we’ve already had one death at a festival this season and we had five over the last one.
We know that over-policing is a huge contributor to people committing riskier behaviour. There’s a direct link between over-policing and people partaking in risky drug taking behaviour.
We also noticed there was an amnesty bin at the festival. It was located outside the main entrance. And it remained completely empty the entire time we were there. It was not being approached by anybody.
You can tell that it’s just part of the Liberals’ prohibitionist-no drugs stance. They just expect people to not take drugs in and dump them at the entrance. It’s not really about harm reduction. It’s just about prohibition.
Sniff Off have been tracking the police statistics regarding searches carried out as a result of drug dogs going back as far as 2009. What have the latest figures been telling us?
The most troubling statistics are to do with strip searches. These searches have increased twentyfold in the past twelve years.
And despite that drastic increase, the number of drugs being found and the number of prosecutions remained low: around 1 to 5 percent.
So, people are being strip searched more, and in more places, including train stations, pubs and festivals. But, there’s no increase in actual crime. There’s just an increase in the invasion of privacy.
We’ve got the stats from 2018-19 for drug dog related searches. And again, the number of false positives was really high. It was up around 75 percent, which is actually higher than it has been over the past couple of years. So, it has gone back up.
Sniff Off has launched a statewide campaign to see its members out at all festivals this summer season. How’s the campaigning been going so far? And what has the response been like?
It’s been really good. We just had our first festival. We kicked off the campaign on the weekend at FOMO.
There was a really positive response. And we’ve got a lot more volunteers ready to go at the next few festivals coming up over the next few months.
We had close to 200 people sign up. So, we’re really excited about spreading the word, informing people of their rights, and keeping the police accountable.
As you just said, you’ve got a volunteer drive going on at the moment. So, for those who do take the step and become a Sniff Off volunteer, what should they expect?
It’s a really simple process. Our volunteers get briefed about what their rights are, as well as the stats around drug dogs and strip searches. So, they get training.
Then on the day, they can inform festivalgoers about their rights, policing and how to stay safe. They also hand out business cards that we’ve made, which outline rights with police.
We are also going to be circulating our petitions, which are calling for the end of drug dogs, a tightening of strip search laws, and for pill testing. So, from this weekend, we will also have those at festivals.
And lastly, the NSW deputy state coroner recommended that the use of drug dogs at music festivals be brought to an end. This is significant criticism of the NSW police sniffer dog program.
You’ve been involved in the running of Sniff Off for a number of years now. How would you say attitudes have changed? And with calls like this coming from such high places, in your opinion, could an end to the warrantless use of sniffer dogs in public places be in sight?
It was amazing to see the deputy coroner Harriet Grahame come out with that report, as it supports what every harm reduction group has been saying for many years. That involves decriminalising all drugs, implementing pill testing, and an end to the over-policing of festivals.
We’ve seen a massive shift in the way the community perceives drug use first of all, as well as the role of police, which has become extremely heavy handed and borderline abusive. I mean we have seen police abuse their powers in relation to the public a lot.
So, there’s been this massive shift in the way people view harm reduction. And there’s overwhelming support for pill testing and the end of drug dogs.
But, as for whether we’re going to see an end to it, it’s hard to say. It’s going to be difficult with the Liberals in power.
At the moment, David Shoebridge is drafting a bill in relation to strip search laws to put before parliament. It seeks to change the laws so they can only strip search people when there’s an immediate threat to life.
So, it would completely remove the power to strip search people when it comes to drugs, which is great.
Photos supplied by Sniff Off
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.