Failing the Smell Test
This story was co-published with the Tampa Bay Times.
In February 2012, an undercover member of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office met with a teenager nicknamed “Joker” in a drug sting operation along MLK Boulevard in Tampa. The officer and the teenager argued over 16 grams of meth because the prearranged deal was for 17 grams.
After agreeing on a lower price, the undercover officer bought the drugs, arrested the teen, and took the material back to the sheriff’s office’s evidence room. There he performed a chemical field test on the drugs, determining that the material he’d taken off the youngster was methamphetamine.
Joker was going to jail.
A month later, however, the drugs were sent to Florida’s state lab for confirmation testing. The lab proved the officer wrong. The material did not contain illegal drugs, according to the chemist’s report. The material that was, in fact, not methamphetamine was slated to be destroyed.
It wasn’t. Instead, the non-narcotics appear to have had a bizarre second life. Sheriff’s department records suggest the material was actually used to train the department’s dogs – to sniff out drugs.
According to department records, on Dec. 11, 2014, the sheriff office’s canine unit requested drugs scheduled for destruction to help train its dogs. Signatures at the bottom of the request document show it was approved, and that the material Joker had sold to the undercover officer was some of what was turned over. (Reminder: It wasn’t drugs).
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office’s website says its K–9 Unit is made up of 22 dogs and 19 deputies who are their handlers. (For those following at home, the canine contingent consists of seven German Shepherds, four Belgian Malinois, six German Shepherd/Belgian Malinois mixes, three Bloodhounds, one Labrador Retriever and one German Shorthaired Pointer.) Each dog has a specialty, such as bomb or narcotics detection or fugitive apprehension.
Confusion Over Drug Tests Highlights Lack of Training for Florida Officers
A series of embarrassments suggests Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office could use some instruction on using and interpreting field tests that have resulted in thousands of drug arrests in recent years. Read the story.
Over months, ProPublica contacted the sheriff’s office by telephone and email to inquire about what the records suggest was a hiccup in their dog training. ProPublica had reviewed a mix of records involving Joker’s alleged meth: arrest papers, state forensics lab documents, state attorney records, internal memos and other elements associated with Joker’s case file.
ProPublica detailed for the sheriff’s office the journey of the material from Joker’s arrest captured in the documents and asked if it was true that one or more dogs had been trained, at least in part, to detect methamphetamine by sniffing a substance the state lab said wasn’t methamphetamine.
The office, verbally and in writing, refused to respond. It’s impossible to say for certain what happened, or if any of the dogs that received this training were still on the force.
“Typically,” the website reads, “our canines retire when they reach 7–8 years of age, at which time they become the deputy’s family pet.”