I’ve found myself to be a really random contributor to my own blog. I think it’s because I really enjoyed writing before I felt like I had to write something. But when you start a blog it becomes a grind just like anything else (for me at least). So I have found that if I force myself to care less about maintaining this blog, when I do write something it is because I am jumping up and down on the inside, dying to convince the world of something that has become really obvious to me.
Like the drug dog scam
It wasn’t until I read this article on reason.com that it finally occurred to me how crazy the use of dogs to sniff out drugs really is, at least when the discussion is about civil liberties. Think about it. We convict thousands of Americans every year based on the word of a creature whose sole mission in life is to please its master. We have designed a system where we rely on the testimony of a human who says he was able to properly interpret the body language of a dog that is playing a game, and he says he does so without bias or personal opinion.
I think to see how absurd this really is you have to understand how a dog is trained to locate narcotics (or explosives or squirrels or missing remote controls). It doesn’t matter what the object is that is being searched for, the dog is trained basically the same way. You see, a “police” dog isn’t really trained to find narcotics, it is trained to alert to an odor that he associates with his reward. Some could reasonably argue that a a standard police k-9 is not just trained to search for marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and opiates, he is also trained to find his tennis ball, if that is the reward that is associated with a particular scent. To the dog a vehicle search is a game because when he “comes through” he is rewarded with his tennis ball, rope tug, etc.
But the handler gives the toy (reward) no matter what the outcome of the search so the dog “wins” whether he alerts or not, right?
And if the above statement held water I would be much more inclined to see the possibility of a modicum of validity to a police dog search. But here’s why it’s bullshit:
¿por qué Pedro?
Most people have never been present during a k-9 search and don’t really know what happens, but I have been involved in at least 100 and I can attest to the FACT that K-9 handlers keep their finger on the scale (in their favor of course) in the vast majority of searches. I have seen searches where an alert was indicated, and I have seen searches where the handler said the dog did NOT alert and the praise and reward heaped on the dog ALWAYS differs based on whether or not the dog produced an alert. If you were a dog would you rather get a tennis ball bounced and then put back in the car or would you rather get a tummy rub and a game of fetch?
The position these guys hold is HIGHLY coveted in most departments and their retention as a handler depends on producing results. Most police dog handlers get their own take-home vehicle (so the department pays for all their gas and other commuting expenses), lots of specialized training (which are often just government-sponsored vacations) and best of all GUARANTEED OVERTIME. My former department adhered to federal labor law and paid all of our K-9 handlers 45 minutes per day, 7 days per week, for time spent caring for their agency-owned dog at home. That may not sound like much but that was an extra 273 hours per year, paid at time + half. Where I worked that meant an extra $8,190 per year ($20 per hour x 1.5 x 273 hours) in extra salary alone. So to say there is an incentive to keep your position would be a big understatement.
What a K-9 alert looks like
I have heard many people who have been subjected to police K-9 searches (both as a law enforcement officer and now as a critic) say something like “but the dog never even barked”. I’ve taken people to jail over their protests of “the dog never did ANYTHING different”. But what they don’t understand is that a police dog alert is something that only one person at the scene is trained to “interpret”, and that person is the handler. Typically a K-9 alerts on an object by sitting down (they used to be trained to scratch but departments got tired of buying paint jobs after false alerts). When the dog sits he is telling the handler “I found my toy, now give it to me”. But there are other more subtle “indicators” handlers are trained to look for like changes in breathing pattern, tail pattern and other types of body language that can be interpreted to mean a positive alert is being communicated by the dog.
Does this really sound like science to anyone? There are ZERO requirements set forth in federal law pertaining to how a police K-9 is trained, how the handler is trained and very little case law that helps determine what a properly trained dog is. Yet courts interpret an “alert” as probable cause, equating a mysterious (and rarely recognizable on camera) reaction by a dog to that of a search warrant? This drug war is the biggest cash cow the government has ever had and it’s made us all stupid.