Lawsuit May Blow the Lid Off Drug-Sniffing Dogs

Lawsuit May Blow the Lid Off Drug-Sniffing Dogs July 6, 2012

I’ve written before about the many problems with drug-sniffing dogs, which have an astonishingly high rate of being wrong. A new lawsuit filed by a group of state police officers in Nevada could reveal those problems in stark detail — and make it even worse than I thought it was.

A group of Nevada Highway Patrol troopers and a retired police sergeant have filed a racketeering complaint against the NHP and Las Vegas Metro Police in U.S. District Court.

The complaint alleges that after then-Gov. Jim Gibbons approved a K-9 program to target drug runners on Nevada’s highways, Nevada Highway Patrol Commander Chris Perry intentionally undermined the program.

The complaint alleges that the drug-sniffing dogs used by troopers in the program were intentionally being trained to operate as so-called trick ponies, or dogs that provide officers false alerts for the presence of drugs.

The dogs were being trained to alert their handlers by cues, instead of by picking up a drug’s scent by sniffing, the complaint said. When a dog gives a false alert, this resulted in illegal searches and seizures, including money and property, the complaint said.

You combine the fraud of drug-sniffing dogs with the fraud of asset forfeiture and you have what amounts to a legal highway robbery ring in our police departments. You can read the complaint here. It’s absolutely remarkable and this case will be very interesting to watch.

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  • I hate to see dogs (which are generally much more honest than cops) being abused in this way.

  • eric

    Separate QC and oversight from operations. You don’t structure your organization in a way that the evaluators of program X get kickbacks from program X (for either it’s success or failure). This historic lesson seems one we are doomed to repeat.

  • Ben P

    Reading the complaint itself I see an entirely different focus. It’s literally politics run completely amok inside the police agency.

    Perry, named as one of the defendants, was a colonel in the NHP. Prior to the facts in the complaint they had completely decentralized and unregulated K9 units, the state conducted a study and found that the best results could be obtained through a centralized K9 training unit with centralized oversight. The complaint alleges that Perry and several others literally put their internal office politics above everything else and deliberately set out to ruin the program.

    The city established the K9 program over the objections of Perry and told him it would be under his control. He deliberately fucked with them from the very beginning,

    – screwing up the trainingg,

    – screwing up payroll so the dog trainers didn’t get paid or reimbursed for months at a time,

    – attempting to steal a $100,000 donation to the K9 program and put it into the police general fund,

    – filing false complaints against the officers involved in the program,

    – having a subordinate trash the offices of the K9 program and steal the records for the dogs

    – Refusing to allow the dogs inside highway patrol headquarters and suggesting the dogs be kept in the parking lot.

  • ShowMetheData

    Ah, Clever Hans

    Clever and profitable

    Debunking has many uses – didn’t expect this one

  • Vall

    “The dogs were being trained to alert their handlers by cues, instead of by picking up a drug’s scent by sniffing, the complaint said.”

    I saw this in action while the base police were training in my barracks. The dogs respond more to the handler than anything else. They do a great job in certain situations, you can’t argue against the keen sense of smell, but if the handler wants to search, the dog will signal.

  • fastlane

    What I don’t get is why the police officers themselves are filing the lawsuit. (I haven’t read it.)

    Did they not get their cut?

    What? Too cynical?

  • Ben P

    What I don’t get is why the police officers themselves are filing the lawsuit. (I haven’t read it.)

    Did they not get their cut?

    What? Too cynical?

    Long story short it’s a civil rights complaint.

    Several officers of the Nevada Highway Patrol are suing the director of the agency and a number of other officers saying the individuals violated their first amendment rights, unlawfully retalited against them for the exercise of their first amendment rights, fourth amendment violations (standing on that one is iffy), civil conspiracy, criminal conspiracy under RICO, Slander, Trespassing, fraud.

    The background is in the first couple paragraphs of the complaint.

    An audit by the state found that the Nevada Highway Patrol Drug Dog Detection program was “rife with mismanagement with an overall lack of supervision, accountability, reliability, credibility, and productivity.”

    The governor ordered the director of the Nevada Department of Public Safety, Jerald Hafen, to begin developing a seperate and centrally controlled drug dog unit.

    The Chief of the Nevada Highway Patrol, Chris Perry, strongly opposed any new program, but was ordered to develop a plan to implement a new unit, he presented a plan that said it would take four years and $3.5 million dollars, the governor rejected this and assigned Deputy Chief Gagnon, a subordinate of Perry to implement the program.

    According to the complaint Perry, again, the Chief of the Nevada Highway Patrol, told third parties that he “hated” Hafen and Gagnon and would “destroy” the new K9 unit.

    The next sixty pages of the complaint are a very long series of incidents that appear to show deliberately targeted harassment and retaliation against any of the K9 officers with the new unit who refused to play ball. (like John Grisham level retialiation, manufacturing complaints, planting evidence of malfeasance) In the midst of this some of the incidents involve the new K9 officers whistleblowing on clearly unconstitutional search practices by the original units.

  • raven

    Not surprised.

    My local jurisdiction used to have a drug sniffing dog.

    They gave it up. They are expensive to train and house and need a trained handler which is also expensive.

    After all that, AFAICT, the dog wasn’t very reliable.

    Given how smart and attuned to human nonverbal cues dogs are (some of them anyway), I’m sure the dogs can alert on command, 100% of the time. Instant pretext for a search, not that they need one these days.

  • Don’t know what’s going to be left of the story itself after you untangle the events from the internal political mess. I definitely would like to see some form of double-blind test of a sample of drug sniffing dogs just to nail down their actual accuracy. After that, I’d want to hear how they’d prevent the dogs from alerting based on the handler’s cues instead of actual drug scent. Until something like that happens, I just don’t see any reason to trust the program.

  • Ben P

    After that, I’d want to hear how they’d prevent the dogs from alerting based on the handler’s cues instead of actual drug scent. Until something like that happens, I just don’t see any reason to trust the program.

    I’m equally skeptical about the reliability of dogs in certain situations, but I think they’re very useful in other contexts. If you’re conducting a blind search and sweep, a drug dog is a very useful thing.

    On the other hand, IMO, a single vehicle targeted search to see if there is a basis to search the vehicle is highly highly questionable.

    I’ve grown up with German Shepards and take my present Shepard puppy (14wks) to the same dog training club the K9 units use for basic obedience training. I took my last one there too.

    Consultants spread a lot of woo about dog psychology and prey drives versus hunting drives. There’s some science behind it but most of it smells of BS to me. The most common method of training for an an active indication drug dog is as follows. (Passive indicator dogs such as beagles are trained differently).

    German Shepards typically LOVE playing tug, its always been my Shepards favorite play. The trainer will usually have a towel or some similar object that becomes the dog’s toy. During basic obedience training the dog is rewarded by being able to briefly play with the toy.

    When it comes time to train them to seek drugs, the officers put imitation drug smell(or for official trainers, real drugs) in the towel. The dog learns to associate the toy with the smell of various drugs. When it smells the drugs it will try to “get at” where the towel is hidden.

    You start the training by hiding the drug scented towel in blind “scratch boxes” and bringing the dog by to test him. If he gets the right box, he gets praised so he associates praise with finding the drug scented toy.

    As the training gets more advanced you put the actual drugs or drug scent in the scratch boxes and keep a toy (usually just a little towel) with you. The dog gets brought by the scratch boxes and if he indicates on the drugs he gets praise and to play with the toy for a bit.

    The key control is that the dog only gets the praise and the toy if he actually scratches the box with the drugs, he gets no praise and no toy if he gives a false indication. The intent is to prevent any association between merely indicating and the praise and develop an association between finding the drugs and praise.

    There’s many more advanced techniques that I don’t really know, but that’s the basic method that most trainers use.

    When you come to certification tests, the best practices do require double blind testing, unfortunately many departments don’t bother with that kind of testing because judges simply don’t evaluate the testing rigorously.

    Assuming the officer is in fact acting in good faith there is still susceptibility to unconscious cues from the officer suggesting the dog ought to indicate here or there. (the clever Hans effect). Officers are supposed to be trained to break this.

    However, in my mind this particular issue is where dogs shouldn’t be used. If you have one vehicle and are using a dog to generate probable cause on that vehicle, that’s where you have the highest potential for improper conduct.

    On the other hand, checkpoints or sweeps are a great use of dogs.

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