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Drug detection dogs: Would you want your innocent teen to be put through the process?

Official police figures were recently released that found drug detection dogs were wrong in almost two-thirds of all strip-searches conducted in NSW last year. Of the 1124 people strip-searched because of a so-called ‘dog indication’ in 2017, drugs were found just 406 times. This means that the dogs were wrong 64 per cent of the time! SA Police figures were also released earlier in the month finding drugs were found just 15 per cent of the time after indications from sniffer dogs or electronic tests, i.e., of the 2366 searches conducted, only 348 people actually had drugs on them. The dogs were wrong 85 per cent of the time in that state!

Let’s start by making a few things clear – illicit drugs are just that – illegal. If you make the decision to use cannabis, ecstasy/MDMA or whatever, one of the greatest risks you face is that you could be caught and, as a result, face consequences that could change your life forever. This blog entry does not deal whether particular drugs should be legal or not. The law is the law and, as I say to young people, if you believe these laws are wrong then there are a range of organisations that you can join that exist solely to make change in this area. If you feel that strongly about it, do something – don’t just sit there and moan about the laws being unfair! I also want to make it completely clear that this piece is not a criticism of the police or policing. I have worked closely with police across the country for 25 years and when it comes to the illicit drugs area they have a clear job to do – to uphold the law. Overwhelmingly, I have found the vast majority of them to be great people who care about what they do and simply want to do their job well. That said, in recent years the introduction and gradual increase in the use of drug detection dogs concerns me greatly.

Drug detection dogs were first introduced by the NSW Government in 2002 and since then have been rolled out across the country. They were introduced to provide police with greater powers when it comes to searching people. If a dog displays a particular type of behaviour (we are unclear as to what that behaviour is – we used to believe the dog had to sit down in front of someone – but that certainly isn’t the case anymore), police then have the power to ‘pat down’ that person and search their belongings (something they previously didn’t have the power to do unless they arrested them). They can then go one step further if they believe there is ’cause’ and ‘strip-search’ the person. According to people I know in the government and drug policy, the strategy ‘polls’ extremely well, i.e., the general community supports the use of sniffer dogs. It would appear that many believe that if a dog identifies someone with illegal drugs on them, so be it, they have broken the law and they should suffer the consequences. The problem is that it’s not only drug users that are being affected.

I have written about this topic before but have decided to raise the issue again because of a Year 11 girl I met a couple of weeks ago who had recently had a particularly traumatic experience.

Clare started the conversation by making it very clear to me that she had never used illicit drugs – it wasn’t a part of her or her friends’ world (“You may hear this a lot of times, but truly, we don’t take drugs!” was the line she began with ..). She was attending her first dance festival with a group of friends and as she was joining the queue to go through the turnstiles Clare felt something brush against her leg. She looked down and saw a black dog sniffing around her. She does not remember the animal sitting down but she said it continued to stay with her as she kept walking. She then noticed a police officer with a leash attached to the dog. The next few minutes are all a blur for Clare but according to what her friends later told her she was then approached by another officer, this one being female and escorted to the side of the entry. 
She doesn’t remember the initial ‘pat-down’ or what was said at that time. It wasn’t until the next stage of the process that she even realized what was happening. She was taken by two female officers to what she thinks was a small tent. It was at this point that it dawned on her that this had to do with drugs. She kept telling the officers that she didn’t take drugs and that she had nothing on her but was repeatedly told that the dog had detected a substance and that “the dogs were never wrong”! She was then asked to remove her clothing, piece by piece, one officer in front of her and another behind. Not surprisingly, nothing was found. 
She was clearly distressed as she told her story. She had not told her family what had happened and had not really talked about the experience with anyone. It was now even ‘off limits’ with the girls who attended the festival with her. She wanted to talk to me because she wanted to know why this had happened to her … During the presentation I had warned the students that if you are around people who use drugs, particularly cannabis, then the smell can get onto your clothes and into your hair and can result in a ‘dog indication’, but that had not been the case for Clare. There was no satisfactory explanation – the dog was just wrong!

I have no idea whether this was even a legal search – Clare was 16! In my talks to students I make it clear that if a police officer even suggests strip-searching them, they should be polite and respectful and inform them that they are underage and request that their parent or guardian is present. I have asked police services across the country to provide information about operational procedures involving dogs and whether juveniles are able to be legally searched without a parent or guardian present (I’m sure they’re not and many police officers I know have agreed with me) but I have never been able to get an ‘official’ answer. Regardless of whether it is legal or not, it is happening! I have met many school-based young people over the years who have been searched in this way. Some were at dance festivals and the like but others were simply standing on a train station in their school uniforms and subjected to this process – that’s outrageous!

What continues to baffle me is that parents are not screaming from the rafters complaining about this strategy. What if your teen was put through this process and had done absolutely nothing wrong? Ask any young person who catches a train to school and they will tell you that they have seen the dogs on the platform in the morning and have also witnessed people being searched in front of them or taken somewhere to be strip-searched. I’m sure that some will say that seeing this could be a great deterrent and may in fact help to prevent drug use. Maybe so but does that possible benefit outweigh the fact that these dogs are not perfect and so often, they get it wrong (remember, up to 85% of the time according to some figures!) … I’d really love to know how many more young people there are out there who’ve had a similar experience to Clare – my hunch is that there’s a lot!

Police officers have a tough job – they put their lives on the line everyday to ensure the community is protected. As such, I am a supporter of giving police greater powers to keep them safer. Drug detection dogs, however, do not keep police safer, they just enable them to enter particular places without a warrant (something they weren’t previously allowed to do) and search people when a dog displays a particular behaviour. I’ll repeat what I said earlier, we don’t even know what behaviour the dog needs to display, but based on whatever that is, police officers are allowed to pat people down, search them and their belongings and actually strip-search someone …

Drug detection dogs can be useful tools to help prevent illicit drugs coming into the country. Using them as part of border control, whether that be at airports (checking cargo and luggage) or post offices (parcels and letters) makes perfect sense. I also have no problem with them being used to help stop the flow of drugs into the prison setting but should we really be seeing them on public transport and at entertainment venues? If there was one shred of evidence to suggest that the strategy was effective in any way, particularly when it comes to preventing drug-related harm amongst young people, who knows, I could possibly feel differently. Until then, to all parents out there – this may sound like a wonderful idea but I guarantee you won’t feel the same when it is your innocent child that gets pulled over at a train station and searched …

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