Sniffer dogs: detection or repression?

How would you feel if you were sitting in the local pub or cafe having a quiet drink or a quick meal and you looked up to find yourself surrounded by 8 police in dark jumpsuits and sunglasses with a sniffer dog? The dog is taken to each table and bar stool to see if it reacts and patrons look on in relief that it doesn’t sit down near them.

Prohibition usually leads to some form of repression and the creation of an underworld that thrives by supplying the prohibited substance. When alcohol was prohibited in the early Twentieth Century in the United State of America, a powerful underworld of gangsters emerged eager to supply society with booze and special agencies were set up to stop them. Eventually alcohol was legalised but the new agencies continued in the form of the FBI and the criminals grew into Crime Incorporated.

Today alcohol is the norm in society and drugs are prohibited with the same results, hence we have “the war on drugs” with special drug squads and taskforces. Yet in Australia 35% of society do or have smoked marijuana and ecstasy and cocaine are used by the highest echelons of the Establishment.

The only way authorities can control this prohibition is to stop supply and in the name of doing this more repressive measures are inflicted on ordinary members of society.  The use of the dog squad is one measure that intrudes incredibly into the lives of ordinary people. The police believe if you aren’t carrying drugs it shouldn’t bother you but the reality is no one likes to see this sort of policing, it is intrusive, intimidating and highly ineffective in stopping drug supply.

Less than 1 in 500 searches lead to a conviction for supply, while 73% of searches triggered by the dogs find nothing.  It would seem to be a highly inefficient use of police resources in terms of catching suppliers. Rather it catches a few punters with a joint or a tab of ecstasy who will get a warning or small fine. So much time and effort for so little a result.

If the dog squads are meant to change behaviour it isn’t working as all it does is change practice with people consuming their drugs at home before they go out or gobbling inappropriate amounts in panic when they see the dogs in the distance.

The use of dogs at railway stations is particularly disturbing as commuters are forced to run a gauntlet of police and railway guards. Many people have reported being forced off trains and publicly searched, while others have been chased through turnstiles only to find they have been publicly humiliated for no good reason. 

The dog squads also target minority groups such as gay men, Aboriginals and young people wearing certain styles of clothing. The gay community has long complained of the use of dog squads in Oxford Street and during Mardi Gras events, while young people have to run the gauntlet of police and dogs whenever they go to music festivals.

The true effect of the use of dog squads is to create an atmosphere of intimidation and oppression and it is worth noting that in areas where dog squads are used there is also a high rate of “stop and search” actions which add to the atmosphere of intimidation and repression.

Democratic, civilized societies shouldn’t have arbitrary patrols by sniffer dogs  –  it is a bad look and ultimately leads to resentment and distrust of the police force. It is a minor source of income for the state and does little to stop the supply of drugs, but it is a major source of irritation that only alienates the general public. It is bad for business and has led to many people avoiding areas like Oxford Street and Redfern where there are arbitrary dog patrols on a regular basis. Sniffer dogs have a role at airports and other entry points and in identifying explosives but their use to stop and search members of the public is more about keeping people in line than finding drug suppliers. 

This is the text of an opinion piece I was recently asked to write for City Hub.  The original article can be found here.


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