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Dog vs. Device; Are drug-sniffing K-9s getting snuffed out of law enforcement?

PoliceOne.com Special Report

Since the 1980s, scientists have been nosing around for opportunities to put drug dogs out of business. So far they've fallen short, but they continue to try, and according to a report in the current issue of the American Chemical Society's journal, Analytical Chemistry, they might be getting closer.

The report, authored by Dr. William Hunt, a professor of electrical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and two graduate students, claims that a new device, nicknamed "Dog-on-a-Chip," can alert on as little as one-trillionth of a gram of an illegal substance. So far, the sensor has only been programmed to detect cocaine but according to Hunt, it's only a matter of time before it can be unleashed on other substances, leading some to speculate that time may be running out for K-9s that want to keep their jobs.

Are we really at the crossroads of flesh versus machine? Will we really see polymer compounds, quartz crystals and flashing lights replace fur and a cold, wet nose?

"Not in our lifetime," says Russ Hess, National Executive Director of the U.S. Police Canine Association. "We've certainly seen some technological advances in this area and the idea that machines may someday equal the effectiveness of a canine's nose may not be too far out of reach," he told PoliceOne, "but there are a lot of variables involved with deciding whether K-9s are no longer needed in the field. It's not a transition that would come quickly and easily."

Not surprisingly, money appears to top the list of factors being eyed in the dog vs. device discussion. Although dogs continue to hold the lead in olfactory effectiveness, the gap appears to be closing and the need to sustain the costs of maintaining a K-9 may be on the road to elimination. In an atmosphere of tight law enforcement budgets, that might be music to some administrators' ears, but as nightmarish as gun shots to some field cops.

In a recent interview with Cox News Service, Dr. Hunt estimates that the annual costs associated with maintaining a K-9 can reach $100,000 when factoring in the need for a handler, housing, food and other expenses (a figure, incidentally, Hess feels is high). Hunt feels substance-sniffing machines could be the money-savers needed to back drug interdiction efforts while cutting costs.

In response, Hess points out the costs associated with the machines. "As with most new technology, the costs of these machines will probably be high, at least in the beginning," he says. "Then you have the cost of training officers to use them. Then you have the on-going costs needed to keep a high-tech machine running properly. You might not feed it dog food, but you'll certainly feed it on-going maintenance. When compared to the cost of scientific support, dog food may seem cheap."

Among the other considerations being bantered about, including overall accuracy, track record of effectiveness and acceptance in the courts, are tactical issues. In his Cox News interview, Dr. Hunt touched on tactics when he suggested that police K-9s are "…noticeable, so drug smugglers or terrorists can avoid them." True? Perhaps to some degree, but consider the preventative power of presence. "Noticeable" is often good when it comes to law enforcement. Yes, a drug-runner may spot a K-9 and head the other way but isn't an abrupt about-face a valuable guilt cue in itself? Is it smart to remove K-9 presence and replace it with stealth machinery in an effort to entice drug-runners and terrorists to lower their guard? Or is it better to leverage the psychological advantage and proven deterrent affect of police dogs? Interesting questions. We'll leave them to you.

But perhaps one of the strongest issues to consider in the debate is the idea of multi-tasking, particularly when it comes to the area of officer safety. In addition to having the ability to be trained to perform a variety of substance-surfacing tasks, a K-9 offers perhaps the most valuable skill of all: the ability to serve as a thinking, situation-specific source of back-up in an attack. In a situation where a drug runner decides to lash out, a hand-held machine becomes a hindrance. A K-9 becomes a loyal, hard-fighting partner. Which is worth more in the long run? Many might agree that K-9s remain squarely in the lead…and by more than just a nose!

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