City Hub

Comment: Drug dogs barking up wrong tree

David Shoebridge. Source:

By David Shoebridge

David Shoebridge is a NSW Greens MP

If you catch the train on a regular basis, it’s likely that you’ve encountered police with drug dogs. Public transport is the main focus of drug dog operations despite being one of the least effective locations for drug detection. In 2012 politicians from both the ALP and the Coalition joined together to expand drug dog operations on public transport, but newly released figures show that the program has been an abject failure.

Through questions to the Minister for Police my office has obtained damning new figures which show searches conducted by Police Transport Command (Transport Command) consistently turn up fewer drugs than the state-wide average.

In 2012 Transport Command had a 74 percent false positive rate compared to the average of 67 percent. In 2013 Transport Command had an astounding 80 percent false positive rate compared to the average of 64 percent. Transport Command drug dog operations are actually getting worse at detecting drugs.

Transport Command was established in May 2012, the same year that the government introduced the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Amendment (Kings Cross and Railways Drug Detection) Bill 2012. Before this amendment, police could only conduct general drug detection operations without a warrant on limited train routes. The Bill expanded the use of drug dogs to the entire CityRail network.

During the debate Liberal MP John Flowers said “As the Attorney General said, this will allow the NSW Police Force to cover the entire CityRail network, effectively halting the flow of drugs into Kings Cross.” Not surprisingly, the expansion of police powers did not halt the flow of drugs into Kings Cross. Opposition members were more realistic in their assessment. Labor MP Adam Searle said “Put simply, it will not do much about drug-related crime but it will look like the Government is doing something.” Despite this frank assessment, every Labor Member of Parliament voted to support the bill.

Humiliating pat-down searches by Transport Command following a drug dog indication are normally conducted in full view of the public. Police also conduct hundreds of strip searches each year, which yield the same false positive rate.

Even when the police do find drugs, it is normally an insignificant amount – only 2 percent of searches result in a supply conviction; normally a relatively small quantity of drugs under deem supply laws.

Drug dog operations on public transport do not target serious drug crime. Organised crime syndicates transporting millions of dollars’ worth of methamphetamines can afford cars. The use of drug dogs on trains disproportionately affects the people that are normally caught up in “tough on crime” policy – young people, poor people, and Aboriginal people. For example, a rail passenger at Redfern is 6.5 times more likely to be searched than a passenger at Central.

When they voted to expand police powers, politicians from the major parties already knew that drug dogs were less effective on public transport – searches on public transport in 2011 found nothing 74 percent of the time, higher than the state average. Now that we know that the expansion has been a continuing failure, the government and opposition have no excuses for maintaining this program which targets the most vulnerable in our community.