The Hon. Barry O’Farrell, MP, Premier of NSW
Monday 11 March, 2013
Last Friday evening I attended the protest against police behaviour during Mardi Gras at Taylor Square. Over a thousand concerned citizens turned out to protest police practices surrounding the event. Although the full circumstances surrounding the treatment of Jamie Jackson have yet to be established, the footage has clearly hit a nerve and unleashed much more widespread community dissatisfaction and longstanding feelings of mistreatment at the hands of police among communities participating in Mardi Gras.
Community organisations are meeting with police next week to discuss ways of addressing the situation. Among the proposals that are put to them, a clear message must be sent that we demand the removal of sniffer dogs from the arsenal of police techniques used at our events and on our streets.
For over a decade now, NSW police have used drug detection dogs as a pretext to subject sexual and racial minorities, the homeless, and youth attending music festivals to harassment and intimidation. This practice must be stopped. Nowhere else in the western world is such widespread, active and high profile use of sniffer dogs accepted or tolerated except in highly circumscribed contexts such as airports and during bomb threats. It sends the wrong message about police attitudes to the public they say they want to work with and it reeks of contempt towards the communities the police are meant to serve. I firmly believe that there will be no improvement in community-police relations until the Police Powers Act is amended to bring this practice within the same sort of highly restricted parameters as civilised jurisdictions internationally. Indeed, the community response to the Jamie Jackson incident suggests that despite years of dedicated hard interagency work on the part of Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officers, community organisations, and concerned officers within government and the police force, a deep sense of hostility and resentment towards police seethes beneath the surface of our community, largely attributable to this practice and its unnecessary use in otherwise peaceful community spaces.
The suitability of drug detection dogs as a means of responding to drug use has been roundly criticized by public health specialists and criminologists and this is not the place to rehearse these points (but see the damning NSW Ombudsman’s review of the practice in its 2006 report). Suffice it to say that the practice has been evaluated as not only very costly but ineffective with respect to drug detection, and counterproductive in terms of drug harm. It is deemed by many specialists to be inconsistent with harm minimisation principles. Drug detection dogs are likely implicated, for example, in the 2009 death of Gemma Thoms at a music festival in Perth, where she panicked at the sight of police dogs and took her three ecstasy tablets at once to avoid detection. Meanwhile, the many people who do not use drugs at these events are subjected to unwarranted suspicion and surveillance, including full body strip searches in recent documented cases at Mardi Gras.
Less often discussed at a policy level is the way this policing technique positions our community: as suspects rather than worthy recipients of state protection and care. The 2011 government finding that sniffer dogs yield around 80% false positives suggests that police enthusiasm for this technique is based on nothing more than the license that the presence of a dog would seem to give them to stop and search whomever they please. Sniffer dogs serve as an opportunity and often a pretext for intimidation, harassment and invasion of personal space. They effectively constitute the policed as guilty until proven innocent. This is a major infringement of civil rights.
There are those who will fall back on the illegality of drug use in order to substantiate this policing practice and disqualify the sort of complaints made here. But this sort of dissimulation is entirely disingenuous and ignores the message that the strategy sends out to the communities on which it is inflicted. In short, it is not just the brutality depicted in the footage of the Jamie Jackson incident, but the sniffer dogs, the strip searches, the intimidation, the aggression, the humiliation and the disrespect that this police method embodies that caused people to gather en masse in Taylor Square on the evening of 8 March. This is no way to a position a community that has undertaken, with respect to HIV/AIDS, one of the most impressive public health responses in the world, largely on the basis of the strength of community bonds forged at events like Mardi Gras.
If police and the relevant decision-makers are serious about improving community relations they will reconsider and revoke this strategy.
Associate Professor Kane Race ,
Chair, Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney
Associate of the Sydney Institute of Criminology