Three-quarters of sniffer dog drug detections found to be false

Police have defended the use of sniffer dogs to detect drugs at major events.
Police have defended the use of sniffer dogs to detect drugs at major events.

Editorial: Liberties and drug detection

ONLY one in four people  searched in Newcastle after being stopped by a drug sniffer dog  were found to have drugs on them, leading critics to question the value  of the canine coppers.

Figures tabled to State Parliament show that 646 people were stopped and searched in the Newcastle  command between 2011 and 2013 but only 176 people, about one in four, were found to be carrying illicit drugs.

More people were searched in Newcastle than any other police command in the Hunter, with drug dogs generally used to target sporting events, concerts, licensed premises and public transport sites.

Critics say the searches are intrusive and the dogs have a high rate of ‘‘false positives’’.

NSW Council for Civil Liberties president Stephen Blanks said the government had promoted the drug dog detection program as  helping to stop the supply of drugs but had used it instead to target young and indigenous people.

‘‘It’s a highly ineffective, highly intrusive program,’’ he said.

‘‘Police resources should instead be targeting suppliers.’’

Police dog unit commander Superintendent Donna Adney defended the program, saying the dogs were effective at locating odour and were  just ‘‘one of many indicators an individual police officer will use to determine whether a search is to be conducted’’.

 ‘‘If an indication by a drug detection dog stops one person from consuming prohibited drugs thereby reducing the potential catastrophic health consequences that can follow, that is a positive outcome for that person, their family and the community,’’ Superintendent Adney said.

In Lake Macquarie, 155 people were searched  between 2011 and 2013 – about a quarter of the number of searches done in Newcastle – with 44 people found in possession.

Nearly 500 searches were done in the Central Hunter command with 166 people found to have drugs.

The use of drug detection dogs in Port Stephens more than doubled  from five searches in 2011 to 73 in 2013 with 11 people found in possession.

Only three people were searched in the Hunter Valley command in 2013 with one person found in possession.

OUR VIEW: Read the Herald's opinion here.

Newcastle City local area commander Superintendent John Gralton said the dogs were brought in typically for use at city festivals, licensed premises ‘‘or anywhere else the intelligence suggests their use would yield illicit drugs’’.

Port Stephens commander acting-Superintendent Tony Townsend said all operations were ‘‘intelligence-based’’.

‘‘We see the use of drug detection dogs as an important strategy to improve public safety and reduce criminal and anti-social behaviour.

‘‘We also have the full support of the Port Stephens Liquor Accord to use drug detection dogs in their premises,’’ he said.

Across the state 17,746 people were searched in 2013 after being stopped by a drug sniffer dog but only 6415 had drugs on them.

This summer festival season, police have already made hundreds of drug arrests, including 214 people at the Fuzzy Field Day in Sydney on New Year’s Day and 221 at the Stereosonic festival in late November.

Police said they were frustrated festival-goers weren’t getting the message on illicit drugs even after Sydney teenager Georgina Bartter died from a suspected drug reaction at the Harbourlife dance party.

NSW Police Superintendent Danny Doherty said officers were amazed festival-goers continued to flout drug laws.

‘‘It’s very frustrating. Every year these music festivals or dance parties run and every year there’s an increased number of detections,’’ he said. ‘‘Police are just constantly shaking their heads about the fact that people are still attempting to do this.’’

Newcastle Community Drug Action Team chairman Tony Brown said an evidence-based approach to tackling drugs and their use by patrons at licensed premises was needed, but that it would be difficult to assess the deterrent effect of the dogs.

Mr Blanks said the use of the dogs could  have potentially dangerous consequences  because some young people with drugs in their possession may panic and consume all of the drugs at once to avoid detection.