Police intimidation: no way to work with community

The Hon. Barry O’Farrell, MP, Premier of NSW

Monday 11 March, 2013

Open Letter

Dear Premier,

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.

Yours sincerely,

Associate Professor Kane Race ,

Chair, Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney

Associate of the Sydney Institute of Criminology


Filed under Drug dogs, HIV behavioural surveillance, Parties, Police, Policy and programs

28 responses to “Police intimidation: no way to work with community

  1. i can only 100% support this statement as a witness and victim of unlawful strip searches and many cases of humiliation and intimidation

  2. Warren

    I fully support this well written statement. You do not see this type of police activity anywhere else in the western world at major parties and social events. It is also a complete turnoff for overseas visitors – many of whom do not come here again for this reason. It is also a complete waste of police resources at a time when govt finances are tight.

  3. At last, an articulate and well presented article on the root of our issues. Well done sir

  4. Drug arrests this mardi gras were up 1000% on last year. I find it difficult to believe that drug use has increased that much in the last 12 months. Smells like a crackdown on queers having a good time.

  5. Steve Atkins

    Such a well-written and researched article which captures the situation and community sentiment fully.

  6. Michael

    No where else in world do police routinely travel in packs like they do here in Sydney. Why? When else where in the world two police officers manage to get the job done, does it take packs of 4 officers or more do the same job. I have seen as many as 9! yes NINE NSW police officers (with a dog) walking down the road and like a pack of school yard bullies turn to surround a person of interest. How can someone not feel threatened by a ring of officers cutting them off from the outside world.
    This very morning I witnessed FIVE police officers arresting a passive ‘crazy’ person. Only two were involved in the arrest, while the other three officers just stood around. Again, I ask: Mr O’Farrell, does the NSW government have money to throw away in retaining five officers to do the job of two?

    • John Stamson

      I guess, Michael, that you would be more than happy to perform the role of a police officer in the state of N.S.W. and attend jobs NOT knowing who or what you’re dealing with. In that area, I imagine that officer safety is paramount. I for one would rather have five officers arrest a ‘passive crazy’ person, than have another officer injured or die in the line of duty simply because there wasn’t enough support at the incident, in which the ‘passive crazy’ person snapped. Two may have been involved in the arrest whilst the others were keeping a distance, observing and maintaining a police presence. You have no idea about the details of the incident of which you speak, yet you are VERY quick to judge. Good on you Michael, good on you.

    • Michael

      Again John I reiterate my point that in cities around the world far more fraught with crime than Sydney, police face the same challenges that they do here in Sydney and they DO NOT travel in packs as they do here. Overseas it does not take five police officers to arrest one man, two suffice.

  7. Ricky

    Aren’t sniffer dogs used at large events where significant numbers of people may/may not be using/dealing drugs. This means large parties and music festivals. The age, race or sexuality of the participants is unimportant.
    If you disagree with their efficacy then why not extend your ban to airports and other custom or border protection functions?

    The article on the subject you referenced also stated that 80% of people searched had either drugs on them or had admitted to recent contact with drugs. Much like RBT (no probably cause there for breathe test) it is also seen as a deterrent.

  8. Hi Ricky, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to check out the Ombudsman’s review which was independently conducted over a 2 year period. (If there is inconsistency between police data and ombudsman’s data on this, I know who I would go with). Illicit drugs were only found in 26% of searches. Only 1.4% of searches yielded traffickable quantities of drugs, and only 0.2% of all indications led to successful prosecution on this count. Really a very tiny proportion. They also found the presence of drug dogs sparked a range of riskier practices, so if this police practice is designed to protect people from the harms of illicit drugs, its a manifest failure.

    But the real point here is the scope for abuse the dogs provide. This is why the dogs have a disproportionate effect on society’s most vulnerable. I will never forget the sight of an elderly homeless man in Potts Point surrounded by no fewer than 11 uniformed police officers with a dog, in bright daylight on a Tuesday morning, making him unpack his belongings in a bid to shuffle him off the nice sidewalk. I mean, WTF?? The strategy is dehumanising, unfair, and there is a massive scope for abuse …which many people have been on the receiving end of. So I really don’t buy the ‘they’re just upholding the law’ argument. It’s a decoy.

    • Also, can I add Ricky, on the question of deterrence, the only thing drug dogs conceivably deter is people openly taking substances like ecstasy in communal spaces. As anyone who is familiar with drug patterns in this community will tell you, it is very easy to avoid the dogs – including by avoiding these spaces and consuming in more secretive and isolated ways. Some of the more isolated practices of drug consumption that have emerged in response to the ill-informed police targeting of community venues and celebrations pose a much greater set of health concerns than was ever the case in these contexts. The strategy is very badly informed and a source of deep concern to anyone who has followed the changing shape of gay culture.

  9. leil's

    Drinking is legal but having an amount a blood alcohol reading over .05 then driving is illegal for good reason. the RTA claims that RBT operations have saved lives some 6000 lives since 1982. Comparing RBT to drug detection dogs as a deterrent i don’t think is the same thing, the public would like police targeting drug suppliers and organised crime, but dogs tend to target users and and at festivals many are recreational users, harm minimisation approaches are more effective. the new powers police have to use dogs in the kings cross precinct goes against the work being done at the injecting centre and creates an unsafe environment for users.

    • mayhem

      they target drug users because they are more likely to snitch on dealers , without snitches they have no way of knowing who is dealing . but in saying that they amount of dogs and searching they use is rediculous . they should go back to doing real police work

    • The difference with RBT of course is it detects alcohol already in the body. Drug dogs don’t do that, and may inadvertently cause overconsumption when people panic on approach.

  10. michael sydney

    exactly! this is the growing concern of the community and it will only get worse!

  11. matt

    Well said. Exactly the kind of issues we need to be addressing i.e. the sniffer dogs, the strip searches, the intimidation, the aggression, the humiliation and the disrespect that this police method embodies. As a regular festival-goer, I have never seen it like this at any other event and the community shouldn’t stand for it.

  12. Iain

    I agree with the contents of the article, however I work as a healthcare professional and deal with NSW police very regularly. I see first hand the violence (physical and verbal) that follows for 24-48 hours post Mardi Gras and all other large public events. This is generally as a result of widespread drug use and drinking to excess. I have witnessed on countless occasions both the health service and the police force deal with much higher presentations to hospitals and incidences of crime. Whilst the examples of excessive force highlighted in the media are unacceptable they are isolated cases and I can honestly say that I have personally witnessed the great work that our police force do. Unfortunately there are a few police officers that are perhaps not as professional as the majority, but equally there are party goers that behave in such a difficult, aggressive and challenging manor and abuse illegal substances to such a degree that they also spoil the party for the majority.
    In all my years working with the police I have never witnessed homophobia or brutality. In fact I have seen quite the opposite with police officers displaying kindness and compassion. I have also seen the might of the police force when dealing with homophobic hate crime and assaults.
    I guess my point is, don’t judge the whole police force based on the actions of some isolated cases.

    • Look I mainly agree Iain and I know the police force is capable of compassionate and intelligent policing. We saw a lot of it in the 90s. I also know the challenges of the – mainly alcohol fueled – post parade crowd dynamics. But of course drug dogs don’t help that phenomenon at all, and it’s what they in particular generate, attitudinaly etc., that is a major concern

  13. Frank Ingrati

    Bravo, Iain.

  14. Rob

    well maybe the dogs will be left out and random drug tests,the thought that drugs are needed to have a good time is so foriegn to me

    • I find it quite striking that NSW police, supposedly bound by harm minimization principles, are policing and targeting individuals’ petty consumption of drugs to such an excessive extent when there is a growing consensus internationally (e.g. in Europe, Portugal, Spain, Italy, etc.) that decriminalization of the possession of minor amounts is the best strategy in terms of health outcomes. It’s sad to think that once Australia was at the cutting edge of public health approaches in this field and that the public health agenda has been hijacked by the authoritarian desires of some elements of the police force and govt, as demonstrated by this practice

  15. Hello , I had no clue this blog existed – great blog entry and even greater archive ! You have a new fan !! cheers Uli

  16. Gary Schliemann

    Thank you Prof. Kane for your articulate letter to the premier. Let’s all work to preserve the “community” you speak of. We need to address the destructive polarisation of society that the US exemplifies. Australia has already lost much of its egalitarianism as we uncritically adopt US culture with its contempt for “losers” (poor/ black/ disabled/ queer/ female) and its shallow adulation of so-called winners.

    See how bad it can get when police lose self-respect and become merely the paid enforcers of inequality in a corrupt economy:

  17. Pingback: Open Letter: Police and Mardi Gras | Australian Drug Blog

  18. Thank you for such a well articulated letter. I personally have experienced police overuse of drug dogs amongst the mental health community. It is such a shame that the police dont feel they have the personality and empathy to carry out their job as human beings. Use of another animal introduces fear and isolation that really cant help in solving complex problems. I have met many thoughtful intelligent heartfelt police and wish they could do their job.

  19. Isaac

    Are your police being regularly killed? Are the areas in which police travel in such large groups regions where police are often beaten or murdered? If not, your taxpayers are being fleeced. In the US, the only times I see more than two cops together is when there has been an incident and the others are called and quickly come. US cops don’t travel in groups of more than two and even that is only in more dangerous areas or when training a newbie.

  20. Pingback: UnDEAD! | homotectonic

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