Puppycidal Cops and Homicidal Police Dogs
June 14, 2016 (Fault Lines) — On June 11th, Charlotte County Florida Cop Watch published dashcam video of a Punta Gorda, FL K9 officer pulling an unarmed bike-rider over and forcing him to get on his knees.
The video shows the man, who is shirtless, shoeless and appears to be impaired in some way, sinking to his knees with his hands up. Immediately afterward, the cop sics his dog on him.
For the next two and a half minutes, the cop holds his victim down as the dog enthusiastically mauls him. The officer can be heard yelling at the man, over and over again, to “stop resisting!” as the dog tears huge holes in his chest. At one point, the cop actually tells his dog “good boy!” as it rips off part of the man’s right bicep.
The brutality only stops when another officer arrives on the scene. At this point, the bike rider is lying on the ground, twitching, flopping and soaked in his own blood.
Before we condemn handler and dog alike, we should understand how K9 units work.
In Illinois v. Caballes (2005) and United States v. Place (1983), the Supreme Court held that a dog sniff isn’t a search for Fourth Amendment purposes.* At the same time, a dog’s “alert” supplies probable cause for a real search, the kind where you’re ordered out of your car or made to hand over your luggage, then forced to watch as a bunch of cops tear your possessions apart looking for the pot they’re convinced you have.
So a dog sniff is serious business. The cops like getting permission from a dog to search your stuff, so much so that some will extend traffic stops until a dog can get there. But because stops – whether traffic or Terry – are seizures under the Fourth Amendment, they need to be justified by at least reasonable suspicion. Recently, in Rodriguez v. United States (2015), the Supreme Court held that the grounds justifying a traffic stop don’t cover extensions for unrelated reasons, like getting a dog to sniff for drugs. Delays of this kind are unconstitutional unless the cop has reasonable suspicion that the dog will find something.
Problem solved? Not quite. If the cop happens to have a dog with him, and he sniffs your car while the officer’s writing you a ticket, you’re out of luck: there’s no delay. Alternatively, the cop could just manufacture reasonable suspicion. Not that any respectable police officer would do such a thing.
But so what if cops use dogs in dubious circumstances, as long as the dogs get it right? When they alert to something, you can be sure it’s full of drugs (or at least stuff contaminated by drugs, like U.S. currency.**) Isn’t that good enough?
The courts certainly treat dogs as infallible. In Florida v. Harris (2013), the Supreme Court unanimously held that a drug dog’s reliable enough to give probable cause for a search if he’s been trained and certified. (Translation: there’s a piece of paper saying he’s a good boy.) This presumed credibility is also why the government uses dog alerts as grounds for civil asset forfeiture: under the current regime, if a dog barks at something of yours, you can lose it without being convicted of, or even charged with, a crime.
But if the criminal justice system treats dogs like superheroes, hard science is their Kryptonite. Interestingly, their noses work fine: DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D arm, spent $19 billion trying to find a technological alternative to dog noses for minesweeping. The problem is that while dogs are good at picking out smells in theory, their performance in the field depends on what’s known as the Clever Hans Effect.
“Clever Hans” was an early 20th-century German horse famous for being able to do math. His owner, Wilhelm von Osten, took him from town to town and exhibited him at fairs. Von Osten would give Hans a math problem, then wait as the horse tapped out the answer with a hoof.
In 1907, a psychologist called Oskar Pfungst figured out the key to Hans’ prowess: when Hans couldn’t see von Osten, he couldn’t solve the problems at all. It turned out the horse was picking up on his owner’s body language. After von Osten gave him a problem, he tensed up and would only relax after Hans tapped his hoof the correct number of times.***
Dogs, like horses, are enormously prosocial animals. There’s compelling evidence that dogs have evolved into parasites on humans: unlike their lupine ancestors, today’s dogs are scavengers, and a large part of their scavenging behavior consists of begging food off people. Because their well-being is so closely linked to ours, dogs have an overpowering urge to please us; like Hans, they become very sensitive to the moods and desires of their handlers. A dog who can tell his owner wants an alert will give it to him. It’s all part of being a Good Boy.
It follows that when animals make themselves into vessels for their handlers’ wills, the results depend on what the handler knows. Von Osten was a math teacher, so it’s unsurprising that his horse got the math problems right 90% of the time. But despite what they want you to think, cops haven’t got a magic crime sense.
On the contrary, they’re frequently clueless, which explains the dogs’ frequently abysmal performance – they’re routinely less accurate than a coin flip, whether during tests designed to measure the Clever Hans Effect or in the field. Cops are also often racist; given that minorities are no more likely than white people to be transporting drugs, this helps account for the fact that drug dogs’ already bad success rates get even worse when you do something like compare a sample of Latino drivers subjected to dog sniffs to one of whites.
So don’t blame the puppies. Blame their cop handlers, who step on them to boldly go where the Constitution says they shouldn’t be. As the psychopathic Florida cop put it:
Good boy. You protected Daddy!
That’s downright civilized. The failure is Daddy’s, not the dog’s.
* Unless it’s outside your home, as the Supreme Court held in Florida v. Jardines (2013).
** Cynics like Fault Lines’ Andrew Fleischman say the government doesn’t really care whether the money comes from drug sales or not, as long as the government gets to keep it.
*** Notably, the handler doesn’t have to know what’s going on. Pfungst, the psychologist, found that von Osten tensed up out of performance anxiety.