December 7, 2003 - The Post and Courier (SC)

'It's not how my unit would have done it'

Police might have violated own regulations during Stratford drug raid

By Tony Bartelme, Post and Courier Staff

A videotape made by the Goose Creek Police Department during last month's raid at Stratford High School raises questions about how police used their drug-sniffing dog that morning and whether the department broke its own rules.

The nearly half-hour of footage shows how police and school officials forced students to kneel on the floor, some with hands restrained behind their backs, as a police dog passed close by, barking and excitedly sniffing their backpacks.

Other agencies don't allow police dogs to go near children during drug sweeps.

"We don't want people to say they were threatened by the dog," said Cpl. Louis Reed of the Charleston Police Department.

Reed said students could stare, make catcalls or provoke a dog in other ways. He declined to comment on the specifics of the Goose Creek sweep, other than saying, "It's not how my unit would have done it."

On Nov. 5, Goose Creek police burst into a hall of Berkeley County's largest high school with their guns drawn.

Images from the school's surveillance camera triggered a debate locally and nationally about how police and schools crack down on student drug use. Some parents and local officials support what happened.

Others, including 9th Circuit Solicitor Ralph Hoisington, said police went overboard. On Thursday, Hoisington questioned the methods some officers used in the sweep and asked the State Law Enforcement Division to share the findings of its investigation with the FBI and the S.C. attorney general.

One key piece of evidence in SLED's report is likely to be the video recorded by a Goose Creek police officer. The department provided The Post and Courier with a copy in response to a request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The recording begins seconds after a team of Goose Creek officers sealed off one of Stratford's hallways. Two officers can be seen with their guns unholstered.

"Get on the ground! Get on the ground!" an officer yells as students fall to the floor. "Hands on your head, hands on your head, do you understand?"

A few minutes later, a voice on a loudspeaker says, "All right bring the dogs down."

Goose Creek Principal George C. McCrackin is heard saying: "All right, the dogs are coming through. Just stay still."

The videotape then shows an officer entering the hallway with a police dog. A Goose Creek police report identifies the officer as Jeff Parrish and the dog as Major, a Czechoslovakian shepherd.

In the tape, the dog appears to be excited, yelping and jumping up and down, its barks echoing through the hall. Parrish leads the dog past students kneeling or sitting on the floor. The dog's head is at the same level of some of the students who are sitting.

At one point, the dog grabs a backpack with its mouth and shakes it. At another time, the dog jumps briefly on its hind legs onto Parrish as they check students huddling in an alcove. The tape shows police or school officials examining the contents of backpacks and searching students. No drugs were found.

Students can be seen tiring from kneeling on the floor with their hands above their heads. After nearly a half-hour, the search ends and an officer walks down the hallway, lecturing students:

"If you're an innocent bystander to what has transpired here today, you can thank those people that are bringing dope into this school. Every time we think there's dope in this school, we're going to be coming up here to deal with it, and this is one of the ways we can deal with it."

Echoing officials from other law enforcement agencies, Reed said Charleston police do school sweeps much differently. They usually involve a surprise announcement that the school is being "locked down."

A police dog then moves through hallways, sniffing lockers and other areas. Sometimes students are told to leave a classroom for a few minutes while a dog is brought in to sniff around. At all times, though, the students and dog are separated, Reed said.

RAID Corps., a private company in Spartanburg that uses dogs to sniff out drugs in schools across the state, also keeps its animals away from children, said Jay Russell, the owner.

He said that while his dogs have never bitten any children, he doesn't want to take any chances.

"You got to handle kids like kids, not criminals," he said.

A federal class action lawsuit filed Friday by Stratford students and parents includes allegations that the police dog was unruly and appeared to be unresponsive to commands. Several students say in the lawsuit that they were frightened by the dog when it passed by.

Goose Creek police declined to comment on the raid but did provide The Post and Courier with the department's operating policies for its canine team.

Those policies raise questions about whether police violated their own guidelines.

More than 100 students were in the hallway that morning, but the department's procedure on "illegal narcotics detection" states, "Only after the on-scene supervisor has cleared the area of all personnel will the canine enter and conduct an illegal narcotics detection."

The procedure also says that if the canine handler determines that the use of a police dog would be dangerous, he or she can refuse to deploy the dog without risk of disciplinary action.

Goose Creek's canine unit is certified by the North American Police Work Dog Association, said Jim Watson, the group's secretary. Watson declined to comment on the Stratford search, but he did say he knows Parrish and the dog Major.

"Jeff is nationally certified, and he has a helluva good dog. He has excellent control of the dog," Watson said.

He said Major is an extremely sociable dog that "loves to search for narcotics."

Drug-sniffing dogs often have the mentality of a 3- to 7-year-old child, and they are trained to uncover drugs like a child plays a game of hide and seek, Watson said. When a dog "alerts," or detects a narcotic, it's as if it has won the game.

"Why is a dog barking?" Watson said. "It's not because it wants to bite someone. He just wants to play that game."

Some dogs are trained to sit down when they detect a narcotic, Watson and Reed said. These are known as passive alert dogs. Others are trained to behave in a more excited fashion. Such dogs are known as aggressive alert canines.

"The Supreme Court has ruled you can search a person with a passive alert dog," Reed said. "We have a passive alert dog, but we still don't search people because of the possibility of someone saying something happened to them or that they felt threatened."

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