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Mardi Gras on the nose

Sniffer dogs are commonly brought to events to find illegal substances. Photo: garryknight

By: Gabriela Szymanowska

On a Saturday night in June 1978, NSW Police arrested 53 marchers during an event to commemorate the Stonewall Riots as part of the International Gay Celebrations.

During that event, that attracted around 2,000 marchers, 53 participants were arrested and later named shamed by the Sydney Morning Herald.
A year later, around 3,000 people marched in the face of a strong police presence, but no arrests were made and Mardi Gras became a reality.

Forty years on Mardi Gras is the height of respectability, albeit your distant aunt kind of respectability, as it attracts hundreds of thousands of onlookers, and in the parade, a contingent of gay and lesbian police marching behind the rainbow flag.

Why is it that if the parade is safe enough for their own officers to participate in the NSW Police find it necessary to treat the whole event as if it is prison riot?

SBS News reported that more than a thousand police were needed to make the event safe, and three tents for drug searches set up for the after parade party featuring Cher at Fox Studios.

A celebration and a platform to recognize the injustices toward the LGBTQ+ community, Mardi Gras brings thousands of people together each year. This Mardi Gras, officers arrested or charged 57 individuals, a hauntingly similar number to the past.

However, unlike the arrests made against the gay and lesbian community 40 years ago, this year’s charges and arrests revolved around illicit drugs.

According to a NSW Police report, 15 people were arrested during the parade for assault, malicious damage and drug possession. During the after-party, police signaled out 42 individuals for illicit drug possession including three cannabis cautions.

Since the 2002 Police Powers (Drug Detections Dogs) Act, police can search people for drugs without a warrant with sniffer dogs at entertainment events or on certain public transport routes. This increased the use of sniffer dogs at events like Mardi Gras.

“I stopped going to the Mardi Gras party when the police began aggressively patrolling the entrance with sniffer dogs,” Richard Weiss, a professional DJ, said. “Mardi Gras has an excellent history of peaceful partying. For me it was the final straw. I don’t need that kind of start to my night, when all I want is to dance amongst friends. It’s probably nearly a decade since I attended and that was because I was DJ-ing that night.”

David Shoebridge, Greens MP in the NSW Parliament, said that the use of drug dogs at Mardi Gras is specifically targeting the LGTBQ+ community.

“This also fractions the relationship between the LGTBI community and the police. No community likes being so targeted by the police, nobody likes being dealt with so unfairly and it is extraordinary that the NSW Police don’t understand that,” Shoebridge said.

The amount of arrests and charges may seem insignificant compared to the record number of people at the celebration, yet 57 is still more than previous years. This year’s Mardi Gras had 300,000 people watching the parade and 15,000 people attending the after-party.

Vicki Harding, Centre Director of Inner City Legal Centre, said that the number of people charged with possession was what they expected it to be with such a large crowd.

“There were 15,000 people at the Mardi Gras party and that number [42] is proportionately about equal to what it’s been in previous years at the parties, in previous recent years. So, given that there were 15,000 people, that number is about what we would expect, compared to previous years,” Harding said.

However, Shoebridge believes that the low number of charges shows how drug dogs fail to provide the results needed to justify so many resources supporting them. According to Shoebridge, searches done by drug dogs have a 60 percent false positive rate, meaning most of those identified don’t have drugs.

“This operation is proof positive that the drug dogs fail at what’s meant to be their primary task of identifying people with drugs. With that level of police resources supporting the drug dog operations at the after-party, that low level of charges and prosecutions, you can see what a failure the drug dog program is start relief,” Shoebridge said.

While the Mardi Gras Organization stated on their website that police would be there with sniffer dogs to ensure the safety of patrons at the party, the use of sniffer dogs has long been controversial.

Dr. Alex Wodak, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, thinks that it is ridiculous to use sniffer dogs and scarce resources for Mardi Gras.

“I can understand the need to have some police presence to make sure that crowd problems don’t happen, but the problem about sniffer dogs and arresting people, this was the 40th event and we have to remind ourselves, when these brave people started this in 1978 they were the outlaws, they were the criminals, homosexuality was still illegal. Now, we’re coming towards the end of
that and there’s still a bit of cleaning up to do with some discriminatory nonsense,” Wodak said.

For at least three years, the NSW Police set up a strip search tent to search individuals identified by sniffer dogs to possess drugs. Those identified are taken to the tent where they are explained what will happen next and searched in private cubicles.

The last few years, Mardi Gras Organisation has partnered with Fair Players, specifically trained volunteers who are on site to share legal and safety information with people who attend Mardi Gras.

“You’ll find us there in two capacities, one is that we have little referral cards, we talk to people while they’re queued and we tell them about Fair Play. The other is that we actually do film police operations,” Harding said.

Shoebridge also attended the event with volunteers from Sniff Off, his campaign to curb the use of police sniffer dogs and Tasers. Shoebridge reported through Facebook Live at the event to let others know about the presence of drug dogs.

The City Hub contacted the Mardi Gras Organization, but received no comment.

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