Throughout the United States, police use so-called “detection dogs” to sniff out illegal drugs and explosives. In the case of Illinois v. Caballes, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of these dogs by police does not constitute a search for legal purposes. What this means is that police can have one of their dogs sniff you or your vehicle without first obtaining a warrant. Courts also typically treat a “signal” from a police dog as probable cause to conduct a search. This means that police can walk up to you in public or, if you are driving, stop you for a minor traffic violation (e.g., speeding), have a dog sniff you and your car, and, if the dog “signals,” they can conduct a thorough search of you, your car, and your personal belongings.
Yesterday, The MetroWest Daily News published a story by Jessica Trufant about how, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, many police departments in the region are expressing interest in acquiring police dogs (Jessica Trufant, “Police dogs in big demand in MetroWest forces,” The MetroWest Daily News, May 19, 2013). As is common in the mainstream press, this shoddy article uncritically presents misleading and outright false claims by government officials as fact.
The article is based almost entirely on the author’s interviews with Ken Ballinger, assistant deputy superintendent of the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department and leader of its K9 unit, and Dwane Foisy, president of the Massachusetts Police Work Dog Association, both of whom stress the importance and legitimacy of police dogs and assure us that these dogs are well-trained:
Many of [Ken Ballinger's] trainees, including Ashland Officer Chris Alberini and his German shepherd partner Dax, helped in the manhunt following the Boston bombings on April 15, which again has heightened awareness of the value and effectiveness of dogs in assisting officers both during and after such crises.
A second-generation K9 handler, Ballinger 20 years ago never imagined that dogs in 2013 would be sniffing out contraband cell phones in prisons, or wearing cameras to stake out buildings before raids.
But Ballinger has seen a drastic increase in the use of dogs and the sophistication of training, as case law and public opinion have shifted to treat K9s as legitimate police tools.
He expects a greater presence of K9s before and during large public events, despite some pushback from privacy rights advocates who may consider the use of dogs unlawful searching.
“Standards for privacy are high in Massachusetts, but the standard of reasonableness reflects the world we live in now,” Ballinger said. “A dog walking around and sniffing you is a lot less intrusive than a cop grabbing you and shaking you like a leaf.”
“There’s nothing in modern technology that will be more accurate or sensitive than a dog’s nose,” Ballinger said.
There is no state oversight or registry for the approximately 300 police dogs in the state, but [Dwane] Foisy said training and annual certification through a reputable organization or police or sheriff’s department is essential to the integrity of K9 units.
“When you go into court, you need to have the paperwork and justification for how you know what your dog is telling you is correct, and that’s through training and maintenance,” he said.
The dogs are trained in just one area of detection, such as narcotics, explosives or cadavers, which Foisy said legitimizes the dog’s expertise and minimizes risk.
The concept behind the training is the same as when Ivan Pavlov in 1903 studied conditioned response in salivating dogs – repetition, non-verbal communication and food.
Ballinger said detection is “all based on a chain of events for the dog,” which is conditioned to know what to do based on the handler’s actions.
Dax, for example, knows to sniff for narcotics when his handler, Alberini, puts a certain collar on him.
Training begins with imprintation – when the dog spends several weeks learning a set of smells, such as the most common drugs or explosives in the area it serves.
Chelsea K9 officers Tom McLain and Ed Noftle said their explosive-detecting shepherds are now trained on up to 42 odors, including TNT, C4 and smokeless powder, while they started off with less than a dozen.
The dog and handler then focus on high-volume repetitive behavior, taught by Plymouth County’s K9 unit using food and real explosives or narcotics of varying purity and quantity.
By going through a chain of commands over and over again, the dog is trained to associate each command with what it needs to do to get the reward.
The only time a food-trained dog, like Dax, eats is when it successfully carries out a task, linking its ability to complete a duty with satisfying its hunger.
“We used to train with toys, but not every dog needs to play. Every dog needs to eat, though,” Ballinger said, adding that the dog remembers what it did wrong “if it’s going to sleep hungry.”
Trufant apparently did not bother to ask these police officers any tough questions. She reiterated Ballinger’s claims that police dogs “helped in the manhunt following the Boston bombings,” but how did they help? They didn’t prevent the bombings from happening nor did they locate the perpetrators, so what exactly did they do? How do the police she interviewed know how accurate their dogs are? Do they track how often their dogs give them false positives? Do they retire a dog if it gives too many false positives? Trufant didn’t bother asking these or any other questions that might cast doubt on the use of police dogs.
We do learn that there is “some pushback from privacy rights advocates who may consider the use of dogs unlawful searching,” however, Trufant did not actually interview any of these privacy advocates nor did she look into any empirical research on the efficacy of police dogs.
Had she looked into research on police dogs instead of mindlessly regurgitating the claims of several police officers all of whom have a direct interest in perpetuating the idea that these dogs serve a legitimate purpose, she would have found that police dogs have incredibly low success rates (they give false positives more often than not) and that it’s incredibly easy to manipulate a police dog into “signalling” its handler.
This really shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. When a police dog “signals” its handler, all its does is sit down or bark. Dogs are not people. They can’t say “I smell marijuana in that guy’s car” or “that guy has a bomb.” Dogs sit down and bark all the time, for all kinds of reasons, so these so-called “signals” are, by their nature, completely ambiguous.
When a police dog “signals” its handler, it may be doing so because it actually smells drugs or explosives. But it may smell food. Or maybe it’s just excited. A police dog also might “signal” its handler because it knows that doing so makes its handler become happy or excited. After all, dogs have been bred over thousands of years to please their human masters. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to find out that many police officers take advantage of this fact and intentionally cue their dogs to “signal” them whenever they happen to feel like searching someone. It’s not hard for someone to get a dog they’ve spent a lot of time with to sit down or bark, so we can’t really rule this possibility out.
Unless we develop mind-reading devices for dogs, we will never be able to say for certain what a police dog is thinking when it “signals” its handler. Therefore, searching someone based on the “signal” of a dog is completely arbitrary.
Although this one-sided article doesn’t address any of the concerns about police dogs, it actually does spell out the real reason that police want these dogs:
With more than 20 years as a K9 officer, Foisy, who works for the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Department, said he saw an upswing in bomb-detecting police dogs after 9/11, but then the demand dropped off. He said bomb dogs might not be realistic for small departments, because calls for suspicious packages peak after an attack, but then trail off.
“When you have a narcotics dog, they’re making seizures of narcotics and money, and there’s a return on the investment,” Foisy said. “With explosives dogs, you may not get calls for service very often.”
Isn’t the honesty refreshing? Police do not want these dogs to keep people safe, they want police dogs because they can be used as a pretext for seizing money from people involved in the drug trade. This loot can then be used by the police departments to pad their budgets.
The people of Massachusetts have shown that they are fed up with the government’s war of drugs. Voters have passed two ballot initiatives in recent years, one decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and another legalizing marijuana for some medical uses, and the state’s drug testing lab scandal has undoubtedly left many people cynical. Even if the majority of the public isn’t completely against the drug war yet, public opinion is shifting and more people want limits put on this massive, inhumane, and wasteful social engineering program.
Unfortunately, police seem to be lagging behind public opinion.
There are literally millions of violent crimes and property crimes in the United States that go unsolved every year. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting statistics for 2011 show that in Massachusetts, 28,219 violent crimes (these include murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) were reported to the police, but police only arrested suspects in 11,512 cases (or 40.8%). 148,790 property crimes (burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson) were reported to the police, but police only arrested suspects in 18,428 cases (or 12.4%).
If police took all of the limited resources they currently use aggressively seeking out victimless offenders and instead put them to use trying to solve violent and property crimes, we’d probably be a lot safer.
But, as I explained, it’s not really about safety.