NSW Police Sniffer Dogs: Getting Nosey

For Australian party and festival goers, police, drug dogs and strip searches have become commonplace. It seems the days of letting off steam far from the watchful eye of Big Brother are long gone. But how much do the dogs cost? And are they actually working?

It’s a cold, wet night in Sydney, and some 5,000 partygoers are making their way to Sleaze Ball, the annual fundraiser for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. Beyond the sheets of rain, bright lights and the distant thump of dance music beckon. For 27 years this has been the second biggest date on Sydney’s gay calendar, a night of fantasy and escapism. For some, an evening of self-discovery and celebration awaits; for others, it will be a night they’d rather forget, with NSW Police searching 33 people and charging 17 with drug possession.

One such person is 47 year old David. He was searched after a sniffer dog gave him a positive indication. Officers found one ecstasy pill. “I was fingerprinted, identified, charged,” says David. “While I was waiting I saw the police bring one young guy into the search area. He’d been positively indicated by the sniffer dog, but no drugs had been found. The cop was asking him ‘Are the drugs up your bum?’ The young man’s face fell, as did mine – the implied threat in the air was that he was about to be anally searched. They took him into another area, and when I saw him about five minutes later he seemed okay, but he had been put through the wringer.”

David said that after he and his friend were processed, his friend asked Police if he could stay and comfort a very distressed young man who was also being charged. “The answer was ‘no’. That poor young man – we still feel bad about him but there was nothing we could do, they would not let my friend stay. They were just plain mean to us from this stand point, and no observer from New Mardi Gras was there at any time.” There was also nobody around when Police confiscated people’s party tickets once they were charged.

These days if you’re on public transport, at a sporting or entertainment event, or on licensed premises, all police need is a positive sniff from a drug detection dog to search you. That can include asking you to remove any or all of your clothing, sometimes in full public view. It can mean being frisked and grilled by numerous officers at a time. And it’s not just people carrying drugs on them that are being searched.

A spokesperson from the NSW Police Dog Unit told Same Same that they currently have 16 dogs in NSW and that they “are among the most efficient and best trained in the world.” However, according to research conducted by the NSW Ombudsman which was published in 2006, the dogs are a failure when it comes to dealing with the purpose they were originally intended for – catching dealers. The report also found that almost three-quarters of searches resulted in no drugs being found. While Police claim the dogs have a 70% accuracy rate, the report believes it’s more likely to be 25-30%, and that some individual dogs rate as low as 7%. This is pretty concerning when you consider how invasive police searches can be.

According to Stephen Blanks, Secretary for NSW Council of Civil Liberties, complaints about police dogs are increasing.

“When legislation was introduced so that police had the power to use sniffer dogs, the stated purpose was to catch drug suppliers, but dogs are completely ineffective for attacking the supply chain. Using dogs at events like Sleaze Ball is inappropriate – it’s inherently designed to catch recreational, personal users not suppliers.”

Blanks says that he believes there is a general public concern that this NSW government “seems to be in the pockets of the Police and every time they say they want new powers and weapons they bend over backwards to give it to them, without thinking about whether these powers will be abused. Whether sniffer dogs are a significant source of discontent, I don’t know. They probably should be, because of their ineffectiveness and their intrusiveness.”

Joel, 23, was also searched by the Police at Sleaze, and no drugs were found. Instead of walking into a party with friends, an event he’d paid almost $150 to attend, he was pulled aside by officers, and led away to a van nearby to be searched.

“I was asked if I’d been around anyone who had had drugs that night and I said no. But how would you even know? I may have been. Who can say?” says Joel. “I was put up against a wall and frisked. He felt inside my pants, hands went inside my underwear a bit, but not too far down, he felt up in my crotch. They made me take off my shoes, and it was pouring with rain. I was separated from my friends, the whole thing lasted about 20 minutes and I was treated with the presumption of guilt throughout, definitely. Even though I didn’t have anything on me, it left me feeling rattled for the rest of the night.”

For Australian festival goers, drug dogs at the front gates and sometimes even on the dance floor have become commonplace. Even if you’ve been around someone else smoking cannabis you could find yourself whisked away to a police van to be searched.

Despite their unpopularity, Superintendent Donna Adney from Surry Hills Local Area Command defends their drug dog operations. “As Commander I encourage people not to attend events in Surry Hills with drugs on them, that way they won’t need to worry about being detected,” she says.

“In total at the Sleaze Ball, there were 33 searches, resulting in 17 detections – a detection rate of over 50%. In addition, of the remaining 16 searches conducted, 11 of those persons freely admitted that they had smoked cannabis prior to their search, or had been around people who had been smoking cannabis immediately prior to attending the party. This honesty is great.”

Adney told Same Same that strip searches were conducted at Sleaze Ball and that under law police do have the power to ask those indicated to remove all of their clothes. “In our experience at Surry Hills people secret prohibited drugs, and in some cases weapons, inside their inner clothing and more commonly inside their underwear. A ‘strip search’ may include removing clothing but more commonly a strip search by police involves an officer looking inside the undergarments where drugs are commonly secreted. Some persons at Sleaze Ball were strip searched and those searches occurred in specifically designated areas.”

Legislation defines a strip search as: a search of a person or of articles in the possession of a person that may include: (a) requiring the person to remove all of his or her clothes, and (b) an examination of the person’s body – but not of the person’s body cavities – and of those clothes. “Police conduct a variety of searches dependent on the situation,” says Adney. “As far as is reasonably practicable, when conducting a strip search police are mindful to conduct it in a private area, by an officer of the same sex as the person being searched.” Police should not ask someone to remove more items of clothing than the officer believes reasonably necessary for the purposes of the search, nor should they visibly inspect someone’s body more than they believe is necessary.

Adney maintains that there were no cavity searches conducted and that Police do not have the power to do so. “I encourage any person who was subjected to a cavity search by a Police Officer to contact my Professional Standards Officer, Inspector Andrew Koutsoufis personally on 92654144 so that the matter can be followed up.”

Tim Duggan is a Sydney event promoter and one of the organisers of Summer Gay Day, an outdoor festival held in Moore Park. The annual event has been on twice and both times it’s been targeted by the Police.

“The second year was just ridiculous. There were at least twenty officers, about six patrol cars which they parked right out the front, as well a number of dogs. The party started at 2pm but the Police got there at midday, just standing around for two hours doing nothing. The sheer waste of resources was unbelievable.”

Tim says that because of bad weather partygoers arrived late, so for the first few hours there were literally more police than patrons. “They sniffed almost everyone that came into the party – DJs and performers were searched in full view… it’s not a good look. All of the DJs complained to me and to the other organisers and said it was just ridiculous. From what I know the majority of people who were searched didn’t have anything on them,” says Tim.

“They stayed for hours and were essentially doing strip searches around the lake in full view, getting people to take their socks off, their shirts, their pants… They continued until the early evening, walking around inside the venue, sniffing people on the dancefloor. It was the biggest mood killer for an event that I have ever seen, and I think that’s what they were aiming for. As a promoter, it felt that they were targeting the enjoyment of the people who were there. We’d spent a year planning layout, music, production, everything – and they just came on the day and ruined the vibe.”

Tim said that numerous meetings with the police throughout the planning process didn’t seem to help either. “For us, it seemed that the better our relationship was with the police, the more we were just flagging it for them.”

The NSW Ombudsman’s report also found that during their two year review period only 141 searches, that’s 1.38% of all indications, actually yielded quantities of drugs that were deemed supply, but only 19 of those people were successfully prosecuted. These were mostly young, male, first-time offenders who were supplying to people they knew. More than 99% of persons indicated by dogs either had no drugs, or did not possess enough to be deemed suppliers. The report was not able to find any evidence that dogs acted as a deterrent for drug users, nor did they disrupt low-level street dealing, increase feelings of public safety or reduce drug related crime. Nor was there any evidence that police obtained intelligence information during these operations that led to further investigation of drug supply.

Cost effectiveness is another factor. While NSW Police are unable to reveal an ultimate price tag for the dogs, the dog unit does receive an allocation under the drug budget, as well as $115,000 from NSW Health. The dogs themselves are teamed with a Police Officer who is an accredited handler and whose responsibility it is to care for the Detection Dog, for which they are paid an additional hour each day to do in their own time. One legal expert in Sydney has speculated that taxpayers may be paying up to $90,000 for each dog.

As for the operations themselves, the Ombudsman’s report looked at a 2004 drug dog operation at the Big Day Out in Sydney that NSW Police said had yielded “excellent results”. They found a total of 323 police officers were deployed at a cost of $41,000. 414 people were indicated and searched, of these, 86 were charged with drug-related offences, including 18 for supply. In total, 5 were successfully prosecuted for supply – none of them had any prior criminal convictions. 3 out of the 5 had no conviction recorded and were subject to a good behaviour bond, 1 received a bond and a conviction, and 1 received a 16-month suspended sentence. All of the successful supply prosecutions involved supply of drugs to friends and partners.

Similarly with the recent Sleaze Ball operation, the 17 individuals who faced court in late October were not penalised, nor did they have a conviction recorded. NSW Police say that they are unable to comment on how they feel about this result.

“There were seventeen people arrested for drug possession as a result of the Drug Dog Operation held at Sleaze Ball 2009,” says Adney. “Most of those were issued Field Court Attendance Notices at the time. We also conducted operations at Parklife and God’sKitchen that weekend. All officers who worked Sleaze Ball were wearing yellow rain gear, due to the weather, which results in them being highly visible and may have lead party goers to think there were more Police than are normally at such events.”

“For me, I wonder why so much resourcing went into the Sleaze operation, where 33 people were searched out of 5,000, nobody ended up with any fines, bonds or convictions, and none of the police operations were about patron safety,” says David. “It is smoke and mirrors, capturing minor users like me. It’s a PR stunt, regardless of the efficacy, all for a single pill, not for drug driving, but for a little drug dancing.”

Blanks says that while the Federal Government is currently looking at a Bill of Rights, NSW currently has no proper human rights protection. “Sniffer dogs infringe the right to privacy, the right to be free of arbitrary and intrusive searches by the state. There is no forum, no court that people can really go to at the moment to complain about this right being infringed.”

At the moment NSW Police collect personal details of all people who are searched, whether they have drugs on them or not. “That’s a typical complaint that we get from people. What is this information used for?” says Blanks. “It’s one thing doing the search, but going the next step and getting identity details from people is another.” A Police spokesperson however claims that there is no obligation for individuals to supply their personal details, “unless they are taken into custody whilst suspected of committing other offences”.

“We didn’t end up complaining in the end. What’s the point?” says Duggan. “If the Police won’t listen to the Ombudsman, what difference would we make? I think we’ve gone too far down the path with sniffer dogs, and I don’t see it ever changing, simply because the Police need to be seen to be doing something, and they’re doing it for Joe Public who loves reading the Daily Telegraph after Big Day Out and hearing that 60 people were caught with small amounts of drugs. I think the Police spend more time press releasing the results from their sniffer dog operations than actually conducting them. I wonder if they’d be proud enough to tell everyone how much the operations cost, and how little they yield in terms of actual convictions.”

Superintendent Adney says that the sniffer dogs are here to stay. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of drugs, the days of partying without big brother watching seem like a distant memory.

“Surry Hills Police will continue to conduct a variety of policing strategies to target criminal offences across our command in an effort to drive down all crime including drug and related crimes. People who come to these events who are not in the possession of prohibited drugs have nothing to fear.”


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