South Carolina

Richland 1 commissioner wants to bring in K-9s to fight ‘drug trafficking’ in schools

Meet Justice, retiring after 9 years as a York County drug dog

Justice the labrador retriever is retiring after nine years service with the York County Sheriff's Office. The police dog was part of the narcotics unit. He was rescued as a puppy.
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Justice the labrador retriever is retiring after nine years service with the York County Sheriff's Office. The police dog was part of the narcotics unit. He was rescued as a puppy.

The Richland 1 school board is considering bringing in specially bred and trained dogs to sniff out what one commissioner calls “a high level of drug trafficking in our schools.”

The proposal, made by Commissioner Cheryl Harris, would include sweeping the parking lot and hallways with drug-sniffing dogs. The early-stage proposal does not include details such as cost, whether the district would buy a dog or contract with a local police department, or how often the sweeps would be done.

“I am 100 percent against dogs around our students,” Harris said during last week’s school board meeting. “But I do believe there are opportunities...We need to be in those parking lots where those deals are being done. We do need to go through those halls.”

Commissioner Beatrice King said she would support the use of drug-sniffing dogs.

“I believe that a lot of our principals have been begging us for years” to bring in drug-sniffing dogs, King said. “Let’s be honest, we have a drug problem in our schools. It’s not just Richland 1, it’s everywhere... and we need to tackle it in some very smart and sometimes easy ways.”

Commissioner Lila Anna Sauls supported using drug-sniffing dogs, but was concerned about the dogs’ ability to detect prescription medications.

While it is possible to train dogs to sniff out prescription medication, many dogs are not trained to do that, said A.J. Vargas, CEO of Custom Canine Unlimited, a Georgia-based company that sells and trains dogs that detect drugs, bombs and more.

“If they’re trained to sniff prescription medications, that prevents them from being used outside a school or a jail, where pills are forbidden,” Vargas said. “As long as there is an odor, the dog can be trained to detect an odor.”

The Columbia Police Department owns nine drug-sniffing dogs and will be getting another one Friday, spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said in an email. Those dogs are trained to detect marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin, ecstasy and cocaine, Timmons said.

The department only brings drug dogs onto school property by request, Timmons said.

The Columbia Police Department spent less than $5,000, per dog, Timmons said.

Some estimates are higher. To buy a dog and train both the dog and handler, customers can expect to spend $8,500 up front, Vargas said.

Though police are often seen riding around town with drug-sniffing dogs on board, some school districts also own drug-sniffing dogs, Vargas said.

“Generally, these dogs are going to be a Labrador or a sport-type breed,” Vargas said of dogs his company has sold to school districts. “We don’t often see German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois” in schools.

More than cost, bringing a drug-sniffing dog into a school brings both practical and public relations concerns.

A 2014, peer-reviewed Polish study published in Forensic Science International examined 1,219 search tests performed by multiple breeds of drug-sniffing dogs and found that drug-sniffing dogs, when sniffing from outside a car, had a 22 percent rate of indicating there were drugs in a car when in fact there weren’t.

Accuracy rates of dogs also vary by dog, breed and environment, according to the study.

“The infallible a creature of legal fiction,” wrote former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter in an opinion for the 2005 case Illinois v. Caballes, where the court considered the accuracy of drug-sniffing dogs.

The dog’s accuracy isn’t just up to the dog. The person handling the dog can have an effect.

Drug-sniffing dogs have been known to falsely identify drugs when their handlers believed drugs were in a given location, according to a 2011 study published in Animal Cognition. That’s because the dogs’ handlers will generate unintentional cues, which goad the dogs into falsely identifying drugs, the study said.

“Accuracy depends on the handler’s training and ongoing training,” Vargas said.

Accuracy isn’t the only concern with bringing drug-sniffing dogs into school. School drug searches have sometimes resulted in controversy, with some accusing police of being too heavy-handed or violating students’ Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure.

In 2003, police officers burst into Stratford High School in Berkeley County with guns drawn, ordering students to the ground and conducting a fruitless search of predominantly black students, according to a previous article from The State. The fiasco made national news and resulted in a $1.6 million settlement, according to the article.

In 2017, deputies in Georgia patted down all 900 students at Worth County High School in a search for drugs, but found none, according to WALB, a local news station.

Police dogs have also attacked without provocation. Video surfaced last July of a police dog in Georgia ignoring police commands to stop biting a teen, injuring him so badly he was taken to the hospital, according to Atlanta news station WXIA.

Vargas said incidents like these tend to be specific to each situation and are “isolated.” He points to the use of bomb-sniffing dogs in high-traffic, high liability locations such as airports as evidence that dogs are still the best tool for the job.

“With the number of deployments versus the number of incidents, I think the good outweighs the bad,” Vargas said.