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‘False positives’ suggest police exploit canines to justify searches

By Daniel Tencer
Thursday, January 6, 2011 18:55 EDT
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Ex-cop: Police ‘using dogs to trample our rights as citizens’

A study of “false positives” involving drug-sniffing police dogs suggests some police forces may be using canines to do an end-run around constitutional protections against search and seizure, and may be profiling racial minorities in the process.

A survey of primarily suburban police departments in Illinois, carried out by the Chicago Tribune, found that 56 percent of all police searches triggered by a drug-sniffing dog turned nothing up.

But, perhaps tellingly, that number jumped to 73 percent when the search involved a Latino subject — meaning that nearly three-quarters of all dog alerts on Latinos turned up no contraband. The study covered a two-year period from 2007 to 2009.

Police spokespeople say the numbers are no surprise, because dogs’ noses can sniff the residue of drugs on a person or in a vehicle long after the drugs have been removed.

But civil liberties advocates smell a rat, and say this is evidence that police are using canines to carry out racial profiling and unjustified searches. And dog-training experts say the problem stems at least in part from an almost complete lack of standards for police dogs in the US.

“We know that there is a level of racial profiling going on, and this is just another indicator of that,” Virginia Martinez, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the Tribune. “People of color are just targets.”

Barry Cooper, a former Texas police officer who has worked with police dogs, told Raw Story that use of canines has “gone out of control in America. They’re using dogs as an excuse to search cars when people refuse consent. The reason it’s like this is because the dogs aren’t always really alerting: it’s actually the cops using those dogs to trample our rights as citizens.”

Cooper said he was recently hired to assess an Arizona police dog handler’s record. “Out of 50 traffic stops, the canine reportedly alerted on every car but four. Drugs were only found on six occasions,” he said.

Lawrence Myers, an Auburn University professor who studies police dogs, told the Tribune that residue from long-gone drugs isn’t the only way a dog can give a false positive. Dog handlers can trigger a false positive from a dog by walking it around a car too many times, or too slowly, giving the dog a cue that a certain behavior is expected.

Myers pointed to the “Clever Hans” phenomenon in the early 1900s, named after a horse whose owner claimed the animal could read and do math before a psychologist determined the horse was actually responding to his master’s unwitting cues.

Cooper told Raw Story that part of the problem stems from a lack of standards for police dogs. “There is no standardized test for these dogs. Anybody could open up tomorrow and start selling dogs to cops.”

The Tribune notes that the legal system offers little remedy for the problem, because while drug seizures end up in court, false positives don’t, leaving little room for judges to rule on the legality of the searches.

Put together, the situation makes for an alarming opportunity to violate individuals’ rights, civil rights activists say.

“We’ve seen a national outcry about being frisked and scanned at airports,” ACLU attorney Adam Schwartz told the Tribune. “The experience of having police take your car apart for an hour is far more invasive and frightening and humiliating.”

With additional reporting by Stephen C. Webster

 
 
 
 
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