Tribune analysis: Drug-sniffing dogs in traffic stops often wrong
High number of fruitless searches of Hispanics' vehicles cited as evidence of bias
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.
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