It’s a Queer Issue: Sniffer Dogs
By Charlie Tetiyevsky
Sure, the dogs on your bleary-eyed morning commute are bleak: who would even have drugs at this hour? But the more pertinent question is who has drugs at any hour? After all, the statistics from the NSW police drug sniffer dog program indicate what studies have shown for years: that drug dogs are not an accurate detector of very much at all.
The pure numbers are telling: 14,593 people were searched in 2015 following indication by a NSW drug-sniffing dog. That’s slightly more people than live in Newtown, all searched (some ordered to strip for this purpose), and 10,763 of whom were shown to have absolutely no illicit drugs despite a dog indicating otherwise.
If it seems like the number of false positives in the NSW sniffer dog program might be a fluke, consider a study done at the University of California on scent-detector dogs. The research team asked police handlers and their sniffer dogs to go on individual sweeps of a room and issue “alerts” when they felt they found “a target scent location” (suggested to be either drugs or explosives). 85% of the runs returned at least one of these alerts, with quite a few yielding multiple ones in a single run.
But here’s the catch: each and every time the room was clean of both drugs and explosives.
For those without a cursory knowledge of psychology, the UC Davis study offers a brief explanation of the basis for communication between animals and humans: not only do animals “recognize and respond to subtle cues provided by those around them,” but humans are also “[willing] to assign a biased interpretation of what they [see] according to their expressions.” For example, I know that my cat loves me because she meows when I come home. However, in reality she is probably just hungry and a cat, but because she meows every time I walk in the door, it confirms my hypothesis (hope, really) that she’s missed me.
But for Waffle and I, being two individuals in a typical house-pet/food-provider relationship, my misinterpretation of her feelings isn’t exactly a problem (at least not a problem that affects anyone but me and my partner who is just tired of hearing about how cute the cat is, I’m trying to do work, go away).
This changes in a situation where humans have decided to enter into a working partnership with an animal poised as an infallible arbiter and seeker of truth: the animal’s reaction can recontextualise an otherwise innocent situation and affirm prejudicial decision making.
Dogs have public opinion on their side – we anthropomorphise them as being “just” and “loyal” in children’s books through adulthood – but it can hardly be said that they are the ones with the upper-hand in the police/dog power dynamic. They are not walking up and down lane-ways and through train stations on their own, scoping out what they can and sniffing out wrongdoings one-by-one. They are lead by humans, and those blue-clad arms are attached to brains, and brains have biases built upon any number of external factors or personal experiences. As much as we’d like to think that service-persons can overcome personal opinions to do “the right thing,” it has been demonstrated time and again that that sort of objectivity is simply too much to demand of a human.
The UC Davis researchers explain how an officer’s unconscious physical cues can set off a reaction in their sniffer dog:
“For scent detection dog handlers, beliefs that scent is present might result in […] sufficient inadvertent postural and facial cues so that dogs will respond regardless of the absence of scent. […] These handler beliefs might be influenced by human communication regarding target scent location [or] increased dog interest in a non-target scent.”
So a dog might signal a positive scent detection simply as a reaction to autonomic human movements, a sort of communication back in the response to do something the officer is doing: a physical tensing, blinking, facial movement, or some other automatic stress response that might happen when an officer sees or believes something he or she finds troubling. The problem is that this “troubling” element, the one the dog seems to oftentimes depend on to signal a scent, might be something actually criminal – a job-related trigger – or something that is simply upsetting the officer (some personal bias or, considering the stresses of policing, a conditional fear response to an element within the situation) or suggested to them by others. Officers, unlike their dogs, are expected to have an insight into what it is that’s setting them off.
And yet the number of unwarranted searches demonstrates that instead of recognising that the dogs may be reacting to them, officers tend to see the dog’s reaction as a confirmation of the perceived danger of what he or she reacted to in the first place.
The question is: what exactly is the “danger” to which the drug patrols, and their dogs, are reacting?
Illicit drug use is a factor in the lives of people across all demographics. It’s not worth wondering why, in a universal sense, this happens as there really isn’t any overarching “explanation” to drug use when both drugs and humans are so varied. But within any one group of users there are common themes and personal experiences that seem to suggest why a person in that group would most commonly use or seek to benefit from drugs.
A study released in April 2015 by La Trobe University in collaboration with Beyond Blue reveals stark statistics about the prevalence of various forms of psychological distress, discrimination, and socio-economic disadvantages that pervade the lives of LGBTIQ individuals. The study focuses on a large and comprehensive swathe of the queer experience, confirming common sense connections between the lower socio-economic statuses and mental health issues, and pointing specifically to a strong incidence of each among trans men and women.
But even for members of the non-hetero groups that report lower levels of “heterosexist harassment or abuse” than trans men an women, a single incident can have long-lasting psychological effects. Respondents to the study who said that in the past year they’d “experienced one or more incidents of hetersexist harassment or abuse” also “had higher levels of psychological distress than those who reported no such incidents in the same period.”
Let’s return for a second to the sniffer dogs. NSW Police’s own minister released a study in 2014 that demonstrated a 74% false positive rate among searches – searches that occasionally involve a person stripping completely naked “in a small space with a pair of [officers] with guns strapped to their hips,” as the target of one such search explained to VICE last November.
Strip searches would be detrimental to the mental health of anyone, let alone a person who is not straight or cis, or a person who has experienced sexual violence (as many members of the LGBTIQ community have – the U.S. Center for Disease Control released a 2010 study showing that bisexuals and trans men and women experience sexual violence of all sorts at much higher rates than either straight or gay cis men and women. It should also be noted that the figues show “nearly half of bisexual women who are rape survivors experienced their first rape between the ages of 11 and 17,” a fact that illustrates the sort of early trauma that can affect members of the LGBTIQ community).
The La Trobe Universtity study points out the well-known fact that, save for heroin, “rates of drug use were considerably higher [in the] LGBTIQ [community] than the general population.” But while it goes on to suggest that the connection is unidirectional – that “illicit drug use was an indicator of poorer mental health – I want to point out that drug use is both a cause of, and a response to, psychological distress. Certainly this isn’t the case in all situations: sometimes drugs don’t affect people’s psychologies, and sometimes the use of drugs isn’t a response to distress. But those are arguably the outliers in a world that is often overwhelming for the general population, let alone marginalised individuals. Drugs often aren’t even the first stop in a person’s quest for help. Rather, they come in to fill the void left by any number of society’s failings: an inadequate public menta; healthcare infrastructure, a lack of civic and public empathy and understanding, institutionalised racism and sexism, a lack of affordable housing, targeted or historical disenfranchisement.
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, who initiated the Sniff Off campaign on Facebook to alert people of the omnipresence of drug dogs, said in the aforementioned VICE article that their deployment tends “to be targeted, particularly against young people, Aboriginal people, and the homeless.” In other words, it is not the coke-sniffing suits who get caught through this program. It is not the big-time dealers driving Beemers with bricks in the trunk. It’s those people who are already taking the brunt of a flailing capitalist system built with older, whiter, straighter individuals in mind. Or, if checking privilege isn’t your thing, we can at least agree that these targeted groups are certainly not the most advantaged within our society.
The NSW police doesn’t mince words about the purpose of the dog program: “Seventy percent of indications by the dogs result in either drugs being located or the person admitting recent contact with illegal drugs,” a spokesperson for the NSW Police said to VICE (emphasis mine). Since we know, as the police minister said, that dogs have a 74% false positive rate, that must mean that there is a great deal of money being spent on what has simply amounted to open-air confessionals.
The purpose of such inquiries is not to stop drug use, unless we have suddenly developed some Minority Report unit to go an stop people before they put that tab on their tongue; the actual function of the program is to shame. Shame, that great divider, the sort of thing that’s easy enough to shrug off as long as you’re not under psychological duress – the same sort of stress that would, say, be a hallmark in the life of someone who has been driven to cope using substances. We are trying to fix something by reinforcing the very painful feelings that are causing the “problem” in the first place. It is shame and guilt that gets people – especially marginalised people – into a dark place, and it’s those things that keep us there too.
What does it mean for society to know that a certain group has a high incidence of drug use – the first version of the La Trobe study came out in 2006, and many other ones showing similar realities have been around for years – and to criminalise such behaviour anyway? Who is helped by fines being distributed for barely a pinch of marijuana? Other than disadvantaging people who already cannot afford or gain access to adequate medial or social support, other than shaming the people who are already at greatest risk of being chewed up by the social order, other than instituting policies that criminalise lifestyles that the status quo abhors, other than policing marginalised communities with pervasive fear and intimidation – what is the actual point of such projects?
What is the end goal? To have no more drugs? To make people scared enough to not use drugs? To not use the public transit system? To take all of their drugs before they leave the house?
To not leave the house at all?
What is the resolution to this, what is the point people are hoping to make before it’s decided to wrap this shit up? Or will it be an endless war on Drugs mirroring America’s half-decade obsession with the ever-increasing police militarisation in the name of fighting drug crimes? Is it about public health and safety, or is the drug sniffer dog program about something else entirely?
Is it even worth it to wait for these questions to be answered when we know that right now the well-being of our queer family is at risk?