Drug Dog Testing Process Eliminates Handler Bias. Unsurprisingly, Cops Don't Like it.

from the accurate-data-is-fake-news dept

When a cop needs an excuse to search something (but can't manage to talk the citizen into consenting) there's almost always a four-legged cop waiting in the wings to give the cop permission to do what he wanted to do anyway. You will rarely hear testimony given in any court case where a K9 hasn't "alerted" to the smell of drugs. Once this "alert" is delivered, officers are free to override objections to warrantless searches under the theory that a dog's permission is all that's needed.

What's willfully ignored by law enforcement officers is the nature of the beasts they deploy: dogs like pleasing handlers and will react to unconscious cues and/or do the thing they're expected to do: "find drugs." If the dog knows it can perform an act for a reward, it will perform that act, whether or not drugs are present. Unfortunately, there's a deliberate dearth of data when it comes to drug-sniffing dog fallibility. Tracking this data would undercut the dogs' raison d'etre: to act as probable cause for warrantless searches. This lack of data makes challenging drug dog "alerts" in court almost impossible.

Fortunately, someone's actually looking into making drug dogs better -- or, at the very least, providing evidence that drug dogs are no more accurate at detecting drugs than $2 field tests. A program started by a former police K9 trainer is looking to remove the human factor from drug dog performance evaluations.

One organization trying to address handler bias is the Pacific Northwest Police Detection Dog Association. In the U.S., a drug-sniffing dog team — the dog and its handler — has to be periodically retested and certified, usually by one of the many regional K9 associations. Some groups have tougher testing methods than others; the PNWK9 has a method that aspires to scientific levels of impartiality.

"It's a double-blind," says Fred Helfers, the retired police K9 handler and trainer who designed the system. "No outside influence."

In Helfers' tests, nobody in the room knows where the drugs are hidden; not the handler, not even the test administrator. That's to eliminate the possibility of someone unconsciously telegraphing signals to the dog as it gets close to the target.

Why this hasn't been done before is a mystery. (I mean, it's a mystery if we pretend there aren't a million reasons law enforcement agencies prefer the status quo.) As NPR points out, a study published seven years ago showed drug dogs respond more to handler cues than to the presence of drugs. Researcher Lisa Lit's tests found dogs alerting to areas researchers indicated scents would be likely, rather than where scents were actually located. What was presented as a test of drug dogs was actually a test of the dogs' handlers. The dogs failed because their handlers failed.

Needless to say, the study was unpopular in the law enforcement community. Law enforcement K9 trainers denounced the study and refused to provide any more assistance to researchers. Lit calls this study -- one that pointed out the Clever Hans-esque performance of drug sniffing dogs -- a "career killer." This is what happens to research that doesn't conform with law enforcement's self-image.

Helfers' testing process -- in which die rolls determine drug locations and eliminate tester bias -- doesn't conform with officers' apparently misplaced belief in their own "training and expertise."

Occasionally, the dice determine that there will be no drugs hidden at all — sometimes for several tests in a row. He recalls that happening at another certification event.

"There were some new teams that failed that sequence," Helfers says. "Because they didn't trust their dog."

He says those handlers couldn't get past their expectation that drugs should be there. "I think they 'overworked' the car. Instead of going around once or twice and trusting their dog and watching their dog work, maybe they'd seen something that wasn't there," Helfers says.

This shows there's no question drug dogs respond to handlers. If dogs fail to respond, the animals are treated as untrustworthy by the same officers who refer to them as "probable cause on four legs." This is part of the problematic law enforcement mindset. A cop would never stop anyone who isn't a criminal… at least according to cops. This likely isn't a conscious thought, but rather the expected outcome of years of instruction that lead officers to view a wide swath of innocent behavior as inherently suspicious. (See also: too nervous, too calm, moving too much, moving too little, not looking directly at officers, looking directly at officers, traveling on any major highway, driving too fast/too slow/too perfect, ad nauseum.)

There is no room in this mindset for the possibility that the person being questioned isn't a criminal. If a cop can't find anything, it's time for a drug dog to do a few laps around the person's car, luggage, etc. If there's still no "hit," the problem must be the dog rather than the lack of contraband. Why? Because the only reason a cop would be interested in this particular person is because this person is doing something illegal. All other possibilities are discarded. This is clearly and disturbingly illustrated by this statement from another K9 officer:

"There's been cars that my dog's hit on... and just because there wasn't a product in it, doesn't mean the dog can't smell it," says Gunnar Fulmer, a K9 officer with the Walla Walla Police Department. "[The drug odor] gets permeated in clothing, it gets permeated in the headliners in cars."

[...]

"The dogs are mainly used to confirm what we already suspect," says Fulmer. "When the dogs come out, about 99 percent of the time we get an alert. And it's because we already know what's in the car; we just need that confirmation to help us out with that."

Confirmation bias, plain as day, and yet Officer Fulmar seems completely unaware of the underlying thrust of his statement. Worse, officers like Fulmer remains opposed to tracking of K9 false hits or to the introduction of any form of scientific rigor to the process.

Handlers also point out that scientific neutrality is not something you can reasonably expect during traffic stops, since police are trained to act on their suspicions.

In short, officers want to have free rein to allow their hunches to develop into warrantless searches with the assistance of animals prone to responding to handlers' cues, rather than the existence of contraband. Better an innocent man have his vehicle tossed than an officer admit his K9 partner might be more interested in giving him what he wants (a warrantless search) than in detecting the presence (or non-presence) of drugs.

This mindset permeates the entire process. When testing methods eliminate officers' involuntary cues or point out how frequently dogs respond to their handlers, it's the process that's wrong. Or the dogs. But never, under any circumstances, are the officers wrong. Law enforcement is willingly operating in its own massive blind spot, unable to fathom the slim possibility that the person they thought had drugs on them might not actually possess any drugs.

And this doesn't even address the bottom feeders of law enforcement: officers who knowingly use K9s to skirt warrant requirements, telling citizens the dog "alerted" even when it hasn't or has only done so in response to the officer's prompts. All of this is excused when officers actually find drugs and the times they don't are waved away with tired Drug War cliches about the sacrifice of a few people's rights for the greater good.

What this testing method shows is dogs (and their handlers) aren't to be trusted -- not without more data. If law enforcement can't admit to being wrong, they'll never look for ways to improve. Given what's been shown, drug dogs should not be treated as "probable cause on four legs." At best, they're walking confirmation bias -- self-serving tools of civil liberties circumvention.

Filed Under: accuracy, bias, drug dogs, drugs, evidence, police


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  1. identicon
    David, 30 Nov 2017 @ 1:09am

    Poor dogs

    Handlers also point out that scientific neutrality is not something you can reasonably expect during traffic stops, since police are trained to act on their suspicions.

    Uh, what point does the dog even serve then? It does not seem like the handlers view it as a sensor and source of information but rather as a focusing point and meter for the officers' preexisting suspicion.

    It looks like the officers would be better and at least equally scientifically validly served with dowsing rods, and they are quite cheaper to care for.

    And they are a lot easier to retire.


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