It's hard for people to think rationally about crime. If five children die in a tornado, it's barely a headline, but if those same five kids die at the hand of a serial killer, it's a nationwide crisis, and mothers start attaching tracking devices to their daughters. When death comes at the hands of a fellow human being, the panic and rage get cranked up to 10.
So it's hard to talk people out of laws that sound like they're tough on crime, because damn it, those criminals have to pay, and the people arguing on the other side are probably just a bunch of bleeding hearts anyway. Who cares if the statistics say ...
6Drug Dogs Are Inaccurate ... and Racist
If you're a product of the American public school system or you just travel a lot, you've probably faced at least one situation featuring a law enforcement official with a drug dog, sniffing around your belongings to see if you're holding. Maybe you've taken a look at the happy pooch sniffing about and remembered that holy shit you have a half eaten Slim Jim in your backpack and braced yourself for the inevitable cavity search.
But the dog didn't bat an eyelid at the scent of your meat snack. See, dog noses are goddamn incredible. If it's drugs they search for, then that's the only thing they'll react to. That's why many districts spend as much as $36,000 per year to have K-9 units sweep their schools. Which is a shame, really, considering that drug dogs are accurate less than half the time.
"Just hand over the jerky and I'll pin it on the fat kid, alright?"
And we don't mean that the dogs miss a lot of drugs. They don't. We mean they result in a lot of innocent people getting searched. About 56 percent of the time, when the dog says, "Search this dude's cavities and trash his car, that man is as evil as a vacuum cleaner!" the person has done nothing wrong. What's more, they appear to be racially biased: If the person being sniffed is Latino, the success rate drops to 27 percent. The other 73 percent of the time, they're getting thoroughly and embarrassingly searched for doing nothing at all, just because a dog said so.
West Midlands Police
And yet dogs always insist they're colorblind.
Of course, it's not the dog that's racist, not really. However, its handlers might be another matter. And they may have no idea that they're influencing the dog.
To understand how that could work, it all goes back to a 20th century horse called Clever Hans that could perform arithmetic. Clever Hans was a huge hit until scientists eventually revealed that the horse was just picking up cues from his handlers and, shockingly, had no real understanding of mathematics. Many decades later, Dr. Lisa Lit at UC Davis bumped into the story and started wondering whether the concept was applicable to bomb and drug dogs.
And, if she's anything like us, spent a good half hour giggling over the concept of drug horses.
So Lit set up a room complex where the dogs would be presented with multiple scents of interest (read: sausages everywhere), but no actual drugs or explosives. However, the handlers were told that they were looking for the real thing, and also that the areas with conflicting scents were marked in a certain way. The results were condemning: Only 21 out of 144 searches accurately reported nothing of interest. There were a total of 225 alerts from the dogs, each one of them a false alarm. In areas with the fake marking that the trainers were told about (and were therefore extra wary of), the dogs were twice as likely to give a false positive.
"I'm pretty sure these guys are innocent, but whatever, you're the dude with kibble."
Yes, even with all their nasal superpowers, at the end of the day, dogs are hierarchical creatures. They tend to love and respect the shit out of their handlers, and if the handler gets anxious, the dog notices it and reacts accordingly. So if the handler thinks that the guy in the van looks like one of those Mexican dope smugglers, well ...