Anna Patty | SMH | December 12, 2011
Police say ''accurate'' … a sniffer dog at a festival. Photo: Dean Sewell
A RECORD 80 per cent of sniffer dog searches for drugs resulted in ''false positives'' this year, figures show.
The figures obtained from the state government in response to parliamentary questions on notice show 14,102 searches were conducted after a dog sat next to a person, indicating they might be carrying drugs. But, in 11,248 cases, no drugs were found.
Only 2854 searches - 20 per cent - in the first nine months of this year, resulted in drugs being found, the figures show.
Last year, of the 15,779 searches conducted after police-dog identification, no drugs were found in 11,694 cases. Drugs were found in 4085 cases, resulting in a ''false positive'' rate of 74 per cent, said the Greens MP David Shoebridge, who obtained the figures.
Matthew Pels, 22, of Erskineville, a hospitality student, said he was one of the thousands searched in a public place and found not to be carrying drugs.
Mr Pels said a police dog sat next to him at Redfern station before he underwent a search about six months ago. When his pockets were emptied, a packet of dog treats was found.
''The whole thing was unnecessary,'' he said. ''I think it was a violation of my privacy.''
Mr Shoebridge said the figures showed thousands of innocent people were being ''ritually humiliated'' publicly.
''No test which has an 80 per cent error rate could be considered a reasonable basis on which to conduct an intrusive public search of a citizen going about their daily business,'' Mr Shoebridge said.
''Now that we know the error rate is so high, the program needs to be halted. Because of where they operate, police sniffer dogs tend to target young people and Aborigines. If this was happening in the car parks of merchant banks, there would be outrage.''
The secretary for the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Stephen Blanks, argued the use of sniffer dogs infringed people's freedoms and could only be justified if it resulted in a high rate of detections.
But police strongly defend the use of the dogs, saying they are reliable and can detect remaining traces of drugs on people, even after they have been disposed of.
Inspector Chris Condon of the NSW Police dog unit said the detection dogs were extremely accurate, adding that more than ''80 per cent of indications by the dogs result in either drugs being located or the person admitting recent contact with illegal drugs.
''Any suggestion otherwise is incorrect,'' Inspector Condon said. ''Drug-detection dogs are an important facet of the overall harm-minimisation strategy of the NSW Police Force. Drug-detection dogs are an extremely effective deterrent to persons transporting drugs for the purpose of supply.''
The NSW Police Association supports the dogs' use. Its president, Scott Weber, has said they have been valuable deterrents at events such as The Big Day Out.
A spokesman for the NSW Police Minister, Mike Gallacher, said the government fully supported the use of dogs because police had found them effective.
Don Weatherburn, the director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, has said the high number of searches relative to detections is not an indication of failure. ''The question is how many people would carry drugs if not for sniffer dogs,'' Dr Weatherburn said.