Chicago Tribune analysis: Drug-sniffing dogs in traffic stops often wrong

Drug-sniffing dogs can give police probable cause to root through cars by the roadside, but state data show the dogs have been wrong more often than they have been right about whether vehicles contain drugs or paraphernalia.

The dogs are trained to dig or sit when they smell drugs, which triggers automobile searches. But a Tribune analysis of three years of data for suburban departments found that only 44 percent of those alerts by the dogs led to the discovery of drugs or paraphernalia.

For Hispanic drivers, the success rate was just 27 percent.

Dog-handling officers and trainers argue the canine teams' accuracy shouldn't be measured in the number of alerts that turn up drugs. They said the scent of drugs or paraphernalia can linger in a car after drugs are used or sold, and the dogs' noses are so sensitive they can pick up residue from drugs that can no longer be found in a car.

But even advocates for the use of drug-sniffing dogs agree with experts who say many dog-and-officer teams are poorly trained and prone to false alerts that lead to unjustified searches. Leading a dog around a car too many times or spending too long examining a vehicle, for example, can cause a dog to give a signal for drugs where there are none, experts said.

"If you don't train, you can't be confident in your dog," said Alex Rothacker, a trainer who works with dozens of local drug-sniffing dogs. "A lot of dogs don't train. A lot of dogs aren't good."

The dog teams are not held to any statutory standard of performance in Illinois or most other states, experts and dog handlers said, though private groups offer certification for the canines.

Civil rights advocates and Latino activists say the findings support complaints that police unfairly target Hispanic drivers for invasive and embarrassing roadside vehicle searches.

"We know that there is a level of racial profiling going on, and this is just another indicator of that," said Virginia Martinez, a Chicago-based staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Adam Schwartz, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois, said the innocent suffer from unjustified searches.

"We've seen a national outcry about being frisked and scanned at airports," Schwartz said. "The experience of having police take your car apart for an hour is far more invasive and frightening and humiliating."

Police insist no racial profiling

The Tribune obtained and analyzed data from 2007 through 2009 collected by the state Department of Transportation to study racial profiling. But the data are incomplete. IDOT doesn't offer guidance on what exactly constitutes a drug dog alert, said spokesman Guy Tridgell, and most departments reported only a handful of searches based on alerts. At least two huge agencies — the Chicago Police Department and Illinois State Police — reported none.

The Tribune asked both agencies for their data, but state police could not provide a breakdown of how often their dog alerts led to seizures, and Chicago police did not provide any data.

That leaves figures only for suburban departments. Among those whose data are included, just six departments averaged at least 10 alerts per year, with the top three being the McHenry County sheriff's department, Naperville police and Romeoville police.

Romeoville did not respond to requests for comment, but Naperville and McHenry County authorities insisted there was no racial profiling and defended the performance of their dogs and handlers.

The McHenry County's sheriff's department had the most dog alerts, finding drugs or paraphernalia in 32 percent of 103 searches. In the eight searches on Hispanic drivers, officers reported finding drugs just once.

Since September 2008, Deputy Jeremy Bruketta has handled Sage, one of the McHenry County department's two drug-sniffing German shepherds. Officers sometimes come up empty-handed in searches of vehicles that clearly once contained drugs, he said, recalling a traffic stop in which a man, reeking of pot, had a marijuana stem stuck to his shirt but no drugs were found in the car.

In Naperville, 47 percent of searches turned up drugs or paraphernalia, though searches on Hispanic drivers turned up drugs in only one of 12 traffic stops, for a rate of 8 percent.

Officer Eddie Corneliusen, who handles Kairo, one of Naperville's two police dogs, also cited drug residue and said he's "confident that (the dog) is hitting on the odor of narcotics."

Inconsistent training and standards

Experts and trainers agree that residue could be to blame for some false positives.

In a cavernous, chilly building at the abandoned former Lake County Fairgrounds, Rothacker, the trainer, demonstrated the dogs' ability to pinpoint not only drugs, but also residue.

Rothacker, who works with some 60 area police dogs and handlers at TOPS Kennels in Grayslake, rubbed a bag of marijuana against a cinder block in the wall. Two German shepherds he trained alerted on the block with little hesitation, earning sessions of play with handlers who control the dogs' beloved chew toys.

But Rothacker said false alerts can't be blamed on residue alone.

Rothacker, who trained dogs for both Naperville and McHenry County, said many trainers use suspect methods and some handlers are "very lazy" about training their dogs. After initial intensive instruction for dog and handler, Rothacker offers twice-weekly training to handlers diligent enough to keep showing up, he said.

"The dogs are only as good as the handlers," he said.

Experts said police agencies are inconsistent about the level of training they require and few states mandate training or certification. Jim Watson, secretary of the North American Police Work Dog Association, said a tiny minority of states require certification, though neither he nor other experts could say exactly how many.

A federally sponsored advisory commission has recommended a set of best practices, though they are not backed by any legal mandate.

Illinois state Rep. Jim Durkin, R- Western Springs, sponsored a bill in 2007 that would have created a certification board responsible for setting standards that all police dogs would have to meet, but the bill died in a Senate committee after passing in the House. Durkin, a former Cook County prosecutor who referred to police dogs as "probable cause with four legs," said he may push the legislation again.

"This one makes sense," he said.

State Rep. Monique Davis wants the drug-dog issue vetted by a state panel on racial profiling. Davis, D-Chicago, co-sponsored a 2004 law to collect the police data. Seven years later, she said racial profiling remains a problem.

"This is the kind of information the commission is supposed to discuss," she said.

False cues

Civil rights advocates and detector-dog experts said the lack of regulation or standards has led police to subject innocent drivers to prolonged, humiliating roadside searches.

The state's data — in which drivers and officers aren't identified — show that the average false alert led to a stop lasting nearly a half-hour. One Crystal Lake search led to a three-hour stop for a Hispanic man in 2007. He was stopped for a license plate/registration violation, according to the data.

The main check on the competency of a dog-handling officer comes in court, where a defense lawyer may question a dog's ability to sniff out drugs. But, by their nature, the stops that don't lead to drug seizures don't get reviewed by a judge.

The limited court oversight and lack of uniform standards leave vast discrepancies in the skills of dog-and-officer teams, experts agreed.

Dog handlers can accidentally cue alerts from their dogs by leading them too slowly or too many times around a vehicle, said Lawrence Myers, an Auburn University professor who studies detector dogs. Myers pointed to the "Clever Hans" phenomenon in the early 1900s, named after a horse whose owner claimed the animal could read and do math before a psychologist determined the horse was actually responding to his master's unwitting cues.

Training is the key to eliminating accidental cues and false alerts, said Paul Waggoner of Auburn's detector-dog research program.

"Is there a potential for handlers to cue these dogs to alert?" he asked. "The answer is a big, resounding yes."

That frustrates Martinez, the attorney from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Dogs do not have the human failings that have led to the targeting of minorities, but Martinez worries that an officer's bias can translate through the dog leash. She fears drug-sniffing dogs are another tool to justify roadside searches of innocent drivers, the unfair consequences of what she called "driving while Mexican."

"People of color are just targets," she said.

Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune

Is this really acceptable, 44% success rates?

This article really shocked me, I always thought that the dogs were pretty much a sure thing. However I did think that cops could force or cause a trigger to make the dogs alert. 


Now seeing this its totally an issue of humans not understanding how well dogs understand our moods and or actions. Dongs can react to just a mood or a facial movement that we may not see and thats the issue here. Until we can find a way to handle the dogs better and give a more consistent success rate then we should stop this practice today. The fact that 56% of people that are searched are simply due to a mistake is so wrong in so many ways. We can not continue down this path of removing rights that so many have fought so hard for and have fought so many wars for others to have the same, we cant let this happen to our citizens any more.

We use to have police that protected and served, I remember being little and having polcie be friends and helped people and were just there to make sure everyone was safe. Over the last 40 or so years of my life things have changed an have changed for the worse. Im not sure why this is, could be we are just a more violent people today than years ago, or there are too many of us, or our policies have changed so much without us really knowing it. Its something though, police are on a seek and destroy mission 24/7, everyone is treated like a criminal until proven differently, thats not the country I grew up in and not the one I wont to live in today.

This dog study sure opens the door to some of whats wrong, that 56% of the people they think are criminal are not, and the time and money spent think they are is keep police from finding the real criminals. Lets start here and stop this until we can control our cues better and lets start a new relationship with police and be open and friendly with each other and not fear or suspect the other at all. Lets look at our justice policies and see what we can do to stop the unequal treatment of minorities and start to look at the way justice works today and how it really should work. We are a country with the most prisoners in the world, there is a reason for that we are over criminalizing everything. It could get to the point that we will have only two types of people, people that are called criminals locked up and people are paid to guard them., 

Wholly Unacceptable in a Just and Equitable Society

No, it's not acceptable.

Consider what's going on here. Despite being recognized in a court of law as probable cause to conduct a more thorugh physical search, it's mostly smoke and mirrors. There is limited and contradictory information to support such a conclusion and virtually nothing that might be called scientific evidence.

Essentially, what is going on is that if you randomly pull over our citizens and force them to submit to a search, yes, you'll find drugs, mostly pot. No surprise there, because the "drug war" has been almost wholly ineffective to get people to surrender their rights to a government that seeks to dictate what they can put into their bodies. It's just a fact that well over 100 million Americans are considered criminals for using marijuana.

What happens in Illinois is that police have very little oversight and, instead of randomly pulling over people, they tend to concentrate enforcement on people of color. Government data indicates that peiople of color actually are statistically less likely than whites to use drugs, yet....

Still if you pull over people of color, instead of strictly randomly, you're still going to find lots of people happen to have a bag of herb. America is a nation of people who enjoy their intoxicants, so lots of minority citizens are still going to be holding. Then you get some cop who gives some dimb explanation that it's because these folks are somehow "more criminal" that explains the statistically imporbable rates of arrests of minority citizens for these "crimes."

Now, admittedly, pot is still illegal. It's just not more illegal to have it because you're African-American or latino -- it's just that cops enforce the law that way, state's attorney's find they get re-elected more easily if they don't question such biased law enforcement and judges tend to rubber stamp most of what passes in front of them because they're well paid to do so.

I read recently where a cop tried to justify dog searches as being legit, even if they find nothing, because it probably indicated that contraband had been there, just that the smeel was not gone yet. Well, since, you can't weigh smell and it's not specifically illegal, that's a totally bogus justification for this practice -- even if it were true. And if it's gone except for the smell, then there is no legal basis for the search.

No, evidence based on canine reactions to the possibility that drugs are present is on par with that provided by a little product that was sold to Iraqi security forces, said to be a bopmb detection device, who paid for it with US taxpayer dollars. Tuirns out all it was was a little black box with a battery and some randomly flashing LEDs. It was proven useless in detecting bombs, but worked great as an excuse to shakedown people, so those who bought it thought it was great. Millions of dollars was spent over several years before the scam was exposed.

But the scam with dogs is even bigger, costs billions more, and has gone on far longer than the "bomb detector" scam. Sure, those dogs produce lots of arrests. Any time you stop millions of Americans a year, you're going to find lots of drugs.

But this can only happen because the 4th Amendment is no longer in effect, for all practical purposes. When are American taxpayers going to quit paying for the unconstitutional oppression of their rights and those of their neighbors? Apparently a lot longer than we paid for those flashing, faked "bomb detectors."


Hillary Clinton:Can't Legalize Drugs 'Too Much Money in It"

by Jacob Sullum

Last week, while visiting Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Denise Maerker of Televisa, who asked her opinion of proposals to address black-market violence by repealing drug prohibition. Clinton's response illustrates not only the intellectual bankruptcy of the prohibitionist position but the economic ignorance of a woman who would be president (emphasis added):

Maerker: In Mexico, there are those who propose not keeping going with this battle and legalize drug trafficking and consumption. What is your opinion?

Clinton: I don't think that will work. I mean, I hear the same debate. I hear it in my country. It is not likely to work. There is just too much money in it, and I don't think that—you can legalize small amounts for possession, but those who are making so much money selling, they have to be stopped.

Clinton evidently does not understand that there is so much money to be made by selling illegal drugs precisely because they are illegal. Prohibition not only enables traffickers to earn a "risk premium" that makes drug prices much higher than they would otherwise be; it delivers this highly lucrative business into the hands of criminals who, having no legal recourse, resolve disputes by spilling blood. The 35,000 or so prohibition-related deaths that Mexico has seen since President Felipe Calderon began a crackdown on drugs in 2006 are one consequence of the volatile situation created by the government's arbitrary dictates regarding psychoactive substances. Pace Clinton, the way to "stop" the violent thugs who profit from prohibition is not to mindlessly maintain the policy that enriches them.

[via the Drug War Chronicle]

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