Sniffer Dogs in Australia


It’s a glorious summer day. You’ve popped down to the local shops for a paddle pop — rainbow of course (you still refuse to believe it’s actually just caramel flavour). There’s one last 15 minute parking zone out front that you cheerfully pull into. 5 minutes later there is one happy individual skipping out the door of the convenience store, blissfully ignorant of the fact that their ice-cream has just vaporised in the Australian heat.

Then it all comes crashing down.

“Excuse me officer, what are you doing with my car there?”
“Just clamping your wheel mate, you have to respect parking signs”
“But officer, it’s a 15 minute parking zone!”
“Yes, and you’ve been here for much longer than that”
“No I haven’t! I parked, bought an ice-cream and walked straight back out!”
“Oh yea, well, that may be the case but my watch here says you’ve been in there for at least 20 minutes”
“That can’t possibly be true, I’d only been in there 10 minutes, absolute max!”
“Well my watch is only about 20, maybe 25% accurate. So look, you’re probably right”
“Thank you sir, I’m glad we could resolve this”
“Resolve what? Law’s the law mate, gonna have to give you a ticket”

Ridiculous, right?

Well no, not really actually. At least not if you are part of the canine drug detection unit of the NSW Police Force. Now, I’ve clearly taken a bit of artistic liberty here. Law enforcement requires much clearer evidence of wrong doing than this, and community outrage would be something be behold were this a common occurrence. But really, is it so different to what is happening day in, day out across NSW?

In 2015 12,893 searches were conducted in NSW after drug presence was indicated by a canine unit. In 68% of the cases, no drugs were found. To be fair, this is a bit of an anomaly, but not in the way you would think. This is actually the most successful year in the last half decade with the average of false positives much closer to 75% in this period.

Now let that sink in for a second.

75% of the time no drugs are found. That’s twice as bad as a flip of a coin. Can you possibly imagine any other law enforcement tool being wrong THAT often and still being wholly embraced by those in power?

How would you feel if you came home today to a speeding fine where the police are, say, about 50% sure you were speeding?

How about a fine for littering because some guy that “sure looked like you” was caught dumping rubbish?

Of course there are those that will argue that the difference here is in the outcome. For many, a fine measuring in the $100’s of dollars is far worse than a bit of public embarrassment, particularly if it’s for a “good cause”. To be fair, this is a perfectly reasonable argument. (Side note: Isn’t it funny that in this hypothetical situation, NSW drivers pay up to three times more for a parking fine than those in other states? I dare say there is a trend forming here).

Just for a moment though, let’s set aside the fact that some would prefer a fine over the humiliation of being pulled aside then questioned and searched vigorously — often in extremely public places. We can even ignore that incidence of extremely invasive strip searches, including the “squat and cough over a mirror” have increased by 32% over the last 5 years with no corresponding increase in drug detections.

The fact is, citizens in a modern democracy should not be subject to such invasions of their privacy based on a test that is wrong up to 3 quarters of the time.

The more you think about this number, the more it should shock you.

1 out of every 4 searches finds drugs.

3 out of every 4 searches unfairly victimise an innocent member of society.

If this is the grasp that the NSW Police / Government has on statistics, I guess I am far less shocked at their staunch support of pokies. The average punter pulling down 87c on their dollar must seem like an absolute score. 

It must be noted that of those 70% — 75% searches that do not result in a seizure, police statistics indicate that the majority of these individuals admit to recent contact with an illicit substance, something they peddle as a proof of the efficacy of the program.

This, however, is largely beside the point.

Given that in NSW 1 in 7 individuals over the age of 14 admit to illicit drug use in the last year — a figure rising to almost 1 in 4 for “young adults” — simply finding and searching individuals that may or may not have been in contact with illicit drugs is NOT a valuable use of time or money, and certainly not an excuse to violate civil liberties. It is also in no way in line with the drug dog programs stated goals.

In the words of Vicki Sentas, lecturer in criminal law at UNSW: “It’s spurious when the purpose of the program is to intercept or detect”.

On a surface level then, canine units cannot be argued to be any other than an extremely imprecise tool in the law enforcement arsenal.

This can all be forgiven, however, if the payoff to society is such that it makes all the humiliating, invasive searches worthwhile.

From NSW Police’s own statements, they see the effect of canine units as twofold:

1. The detection of illicit substances, particularly in commercial quantities.
2. To provide a deterrent to any would be drug users, thereby protecting people’s health.

Before we can look at point 1, we must understand the distinction between personal use, and commercial or trafficable quantities.

Australia is one of the few modern democracies worldwide that set threshold figures for the difference between personal use, trafficking and commercial amounts, with each level applying increasingly severe maximum and recommended punishments. This itself is a fairly serious issue, with studies showing that these thresholds are not set at a reasonable level to exclude personal users from the “trafficking” category.

2014 study from the government agency, the Australian Institute of Criminology, concluded the following:

“While it must be emphasised that circumstances of high use and purchase are not going to occur all the time, this clearly shows the erroneousness of the assumption that the thresholds effectively filter out all users from traffickers.”

With a policy recommendation of:

“Abolish the deemed supply provisions — to place the onus back on the prosecutor to prove trafficking intent (or intent for preparation for trafficking) based on evidence such as scales, multiple bags, telephone records, etc.”

The study was completely ignored by those in power, obviously, and this topic could fill a full article alone — I would recommend reading the whole report it makes for an interesting read.

The important take-away here is that by the Federal Government’s own words, threshold levels are not reflective of true purchasing and use patterns. (Another side note: NSW has, overall, by far the lowest threshold level of any state — excluding NT. The pattern becomes clearer…)

So, given that police regularly announce the success of sniffer dog operations and that a major stated aim is to reduce the supply of drugs to our communities, when you combine this with inappropriately low threshold limits you would expect that a good proportion of successful searches would find drugs in trafficable amounts?

Well, you would be wrong.

In 2005–2006, of 10,000 cases where drugs were seized after a sniffer dog indication, only 141 cases were deemed to be in trafficable quantities. Of these, 19 were successfully prosecuted for supply.

Wait, can we look at that again?

1.41%, of all cases in which drugs were found were deemed to be non-personal use. 0.19% of these resulted in a charge. With a false positive rate of 75%, this figure falls to less than 0.05% of all searches resulting in a prosecution for supply.

That is one in every 2000 searches.

That is an absolutely appalling strike rate no matter how you look at it.

To put this in perspective, Random Breath Tests have a prosecution rate of around 1 in 200, and this is for a test that has had demonstrable positive effect on public health and safety.

The numbers here, taken from the most comprehensive review of sniffer dogs in NSW ever completed, may also be somewhat inflated as an individual carrying multiple types of drugs is recorded more than once (i.e, one “success” for each different drug found).

While you might have noticed that these figures are quite old, this is purely due to the fact that the NSW Police are (unsurprisingly) not exactly transparent or forthcoming with their own data. Regardless, more recent figures obtained by the Greens Party through a Freedom of Information request largely mirror this trend with the “vast majority” of successful searches finding only personal-use amounts of cannabis and less than 2% of searches resulting in a charge (not prosecution) for supply.

The police call these “busts” a success and it is another question entirely whether personal use of the two most commonly found drugs (cannabis and MDMA) are a detriment to society. Either way, do we really want an operation that is so appallingly inefficient that they think this is worthwhile boasting about online?

So, how about the cost to the tax payer?

Since 2016 the NSW Police Force has spent $66 million on dog operations, at an average of over $9 million a year. Note, this figure does not include the wages of the officers that accompany them who are often counted in the double digits at any single operation.

Given that the operations are objectively poor at stemming the supply of drugs through detection, how much value is the tax payer getting from the often touted “deterrent effect” of sniffer dogs?

This has been claimed again and again and again by those who support the operations. A personal favourite of mine, the “won’t somebody think of the children” syndrome even rears its ugly, ugly head. “The cost of losing one life is worth more than the cost of having a sniffer dog,” the president of the NSW Police Association said in 2011. The implication being that the deterrent effect of sniffer dogs is such that we can concretely attribute it to lives saved.

Others have stretched this tenuous link even further. A 2014 statement from a NSW Police Spokesman claimed “If our [Drug Dog] operations prevent just one person from putting their life at risk, then they are succeeding”.

Well, the thing about this is, I cannot find a single study that suggests drug dogs are an effective deterrent to drug use. (This is anecdotal and stems from just a few hours of research for this article, I would be very appreciative if someone knows of such a study and is able to send me a link.)

On the other hand, there are numerous studies from universitiesindependent investigatorslegal services and huge amounts of anecdotal evidence that the deterrent effect is a figment of the police’s imagination. (Also, here and here — all of these found within minutes of searching).

Indeed, these studies have shown that not only do dogs not deter use, but can create environments where individuals engage in patterns of higher risk drug use.

One study of over 2000 drug users, for example, concluded that:

“Despite the increased visibility of police drug detection dogs, regular ecstasy users continue to use and be in possession of illicit drugs in public, suggesting a limited deterrence effect. The hasty consumption of drugs upon sighting the dogs also raises health concerns.

Another study found that:

“Sniffer dogs would prompt two key changes … a 13 per cent increase in the number of people who said they’d use at least some of their drugs outside the venue, rather than using them all inside … and a 40 per cent increase in the relative amount of consumption of ecstasy, methamphetamine and other drugs, as opposed to using cannabis” due to an accurate perception that “dogs found it easier to sniff out marijuana than other party drugs.”

Numerous others have shown that dogs have negligible or even negative effects on patterns of drug use.

The point here is, even if you were to disagree with the studies methods, motivations or conclusions, the onus is on the police to prove that the drug dogs DO work. Just claiming something to be true without any evidence isn’t acceptable in today’s age of freedom of information.

The biggest issue of all, however, is the well documented tendency for “panic consumption”, when an individual consumes all their drugs at once upon sighting a sniffer dog.

In 2013 at the popular Hard-Dance festival in Sydney, Defqon 1, 23 year old James Munro died after consuming 3 ecstasy pills after seeing “over 100 police and sniffer dogs” at the entrance to the festival.

In 2009, 17 year old Gemma Thomas collapsed and died after a drug overdose brought on by a panic consumption of 3 ecstasy pills due to the presence of drug dogs.

For those keeping score at home in this morbid, deadly game, that’s 2 in the “cons” column and in the “pros” column, a whole lot of unsubstantiated nonsense spouted by those that believe if they yell something loud enough and often enough, it must be true.

Again let’s make this clear: these aren’t tenuous, unsubstantiated links.

These are concrete examples of youths who have lost their lives as a direct result of the drug dog program. Again, anecdotal evidence would suggest that these are only two of many, mostly non-fatal overdoses caused by this so called “deterrent effect”.

The police’s response?

Depressingly predictable.

In regards to the death of James Munro, Detective Acting Chief Superintendent Arthur Katsogiannis was quoted as saying “Don’t take the risk, don’t play Russian roulette with your life … it’s as simple as that”

No self-awareness.

No tact.

Definitely no indication that they are aware of the enormous hypocrisy of their claims regarding the deterrent effect of sniffer dogs.

No, just the typical bull-headedness that we have come to expect of the NSW Police Force when it comes to sniffer dogs.

The saddest part of this entire thing?

This article should never have been written.

While the movement against sniffer dogs has only recently gained momentum and wide-spread visibility, this damning information has been around for as long as they have been in use.

Drug detection dogs in NSW are a relatively modern change, brought in for the Sydney 2000 Olympics and only properly clarified in the “Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001” aka ‘the Drug Dogs Act’. This act required the NSW Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, to provide a full, independent review of the policy looking at all aspects of the program, from implementation to end result.

Rather than putting it in my own words, I will let the report do its own talking:

Despite the best efforts of police officers, the use of drug detection dogs has proven to be an ineffective tool for detecting drug dealers. Overwhelmingly, the use of drug detection dogs has led to public searches of individuals in which no drugs were found, or to the detection of (mostly young) adults in possession of very small amounts of cannabis for personal use.

These findings have led us to question whether the Drug Dogs Act will ever provide a fair, efficacious and cost effective tool to target drug supply. Given this, we have recommended that the starting point, when considering this report, is to review whether the Drug Dogs Act should be retained at all. I trust the research and observations in this report will make a positive contribution to this debate.

In 2006, the year the report was handed down, there were 14 drug dogs working for the NSW Police force. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but this is estimated to have risen to “dozens and dozens” by 2016. Searches, at least, have more than doubled in this time.

By every single quantifiable metric, the NSW Drug dog program is enormously ineffective in its stated goals. Its cost and manpower inefficiency is likely unmatched across any other widely implemented police program. Perhaps worse still, the violation of civil liberties on law abiding citizens would be inexcusable even for an effective program, let alone one as poor as this.

Any potential unquantifiable “deterrent effect” — something that a police program in a modern democracy should never be justified upon — is surely countered by the several deaths that are directly linked to this same “effect”.

So Bruce Barbour, on behalf of the powers-that-be in NSW, I do apologise. But the expectation that your government mandated, independent, data driven report would have any effect on NSW Police discourse was sorely misguided.

The dogs, it seems, are here to stay.

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