TRUE OPINION: Sniffer dogs need to sniff off

TRUE OPINION: When dogs are used to enforce laws, it is more reminiscent of the Stasi or a Police State than a free democratic society. Yet in New South Wales, the police regularly use drug detection dogs on citizens – mainly young people and those attending festivals or outdoor music events. True Crime News Weekly columnist, Miles Hunt, says it’s finally time to put an end to it all.

Sniffer dogs targeting the public-at-large have become commonplace across Sydney and NSW over the last 15 years, after senior police figures easily convinced the political class that a short-lived program for the 2000 Sydney Olympics should be exponentially expanded.  And rather than those sniffer dogs targeting terrorists and other violent criminals as was the case during the Olympics, it was thought they could instead be best put to use harassing your humble stoner with a few grams of weed in their pocket.

They are a brutal enforcement mechanism enforcing terrible laws – for the current drugs laws are a disaster. Formed 50 to 100 years ago, and borne out of racial prejudices and a desire by governments to target certain people, they have no moral authority whatsoever. Worse still, they fail in their aims, and only exacerbate harms, and criminalise the majority of people who use or have used illegal drugs.

The drug laws have got to change and sniffer dogs have got to go. In support of this just cause, there was a rally held at the Downing Centre steps in Sydney’s CBD just this past weekend (July 22). It was organised by Reclaim the Streets – a grassroots group which aims to keep this fast-hollowing city more open, vibrant and full of life. The protest was spurred on by the most recent overreach by the NSW Police Minister: a ludicrous and perhaps illegal order for police, at the Midnight Mafia and then Above and beyond music festivals, to tear up tickets of any patrons who were met with a positive indication from a drug detection dog. According to the Sniff Off drugs reform campaign, operated by the Greens party, almost 200 festival-goers in total were intimidated and then punished by police after a dog simply sat near them at the two events.

Sounds reasonable right? Well a NSW Ombudsman report and the police’s own statistics show dogs are wrong with their positive indications in about 70% of cases – that’s almost three quarters of all searches where nothing is found. Pretty low threshold, especially when you are invading someone’s privacy – holding them against their will, touching them, stripping them naked. If a sportsman failed 70% of the time, it might be time for a retirement party. What about a lawyer that lost 70% of cases? They wouldn’t be able to afford to renew their practicing certificate. These dogs would face the sack in almost every other job imaginable.

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Unless they are not the problem: dogs do have profoundly strong noses. There is, of course, a more nefarious possibility – the Police are using the dogs to search whoever they want.

There are rules and restrictions in place protecting people from arbitrary searches from the police. The police must have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that they are carrying drugs – and this must be based on objective evidence and not just a hunch or subjective belief. It means people can walk down the street and expect not to have their rights and privacy invaded by police searching them – as should be the case in a just and free society.

But the dogs allow them to circumvent this. All the police officer now requires is a positive indication – whatever that means – from the dog and they can search away; often strip searching people, making them squat naked and cough … humiliating hey? Don’t worry that the dogs are wrong 70% of the time.

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Good boy but bad policing? (Image: Lifehacker)

The drug detection dog program allows police to search whoever they dare: black, white, Indigenous, young, old, the marginalised, the homeless, the poor, students, those who catch trains, those who attend dance parties, bars, and music festivals, someone with a beard, someone who goes out in public, someone who looks like they may use certain drugs, or maybe just someone the police want to search.

I was at a music festival in December last year – Sub Sonic up in Barrington Tops – and the police presence was huge. They roamed the dance floor with their dogs and took revelers, picked at random, back to their tents for more thorough searches. Two of my friends were searched – both Brazilian, one bearded, tattooed – he reminds me of Jose Arcadio from One Hundred Years of Solitude – the sort of fellow that could have traversed the world a dozen times in the merchant navy.

The other: of African descent, dark skinned, with a thick beard, and a jacket that makes him look like he’s in the Black Panthers; a brilliant DJ, but also someone that has met his fair share of discrimination through his life – not least by the NSW police who picked him up on a ‘positive indication’ from the sniffer dogs. Neither had anything. They wanted to strip search Jose Arcadio – he asked the police if they were into ‘kinky stuff’ and the police let him go a little sheepishly.

But it made me wonder, of all my friends at the festival, plenty of whom were actually carrying drugs, why was it these two that were searched? Maybe, the police officer decided they wanted to search them – because of how they looked, or their ethnic origin, or the colour of their skin, or their age, or clothes or hair – and the police officer decided they wanted their dog to give them a positive indication, and subtly nudged them that way, with a pat and promise of plenty of treats when they got back to the station … and that is the problem with sniffer dogs, and the reason why they’ve got to go.

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About Miles Hunt 5 Articles
Miles Hunt is a practising lawyer, writer and novelist as well as the founder of leading drugs reform NGO, Unharm.

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