Saturday, April 16, 2005

Harris County drug task force kicks the bucket

What do Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, Laredo, El Paso, Abilene, Denton, Lubbock, Amarillo and Brenham have in common with Harris and Fort Bend counties? After May, none of them will any longer participate in a Byrne-grant-funded drug task force. Harris, whose county seat is Houston, is Texas' largest-population county. That means unless those grants are shifted away from task forces, where 86% of the funds go now, most Texans will no longer benefit from federal law enforcement grants.

Texas' drug task force system may have reached a tipping point this week after a federal judge cleared the way for a lawsuit against a drug task force in Hearne, and the
Harris County Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force announced it will end its existence as of May 31. The Baytown Sun reported today that the Harris County task force, which is operated by the Baytown Police Department, must close down because of new federal budget cuts. (Ed. note: see more on these federal cuts here.)
[Baytown Police Chief Byron] Jones said a representative of the Criminal Justice Division of Gov. Rick Perry’s office, which distributes federal funds to local police agencies, had informed Clifford the federal government had recently combined two grant programs into one, the Justice Assistance Grants program.

With the change, the total amount of funding agencies across the country compete for had been “reduced by millions,” Jones said.
ACLU earlier this year urged Harris County officials to abolish their task force in order to use the grant money for much-needed drug courts and crime lab improvements. Meanwhile, the Legislature may still get rid of the task force system, and President Bush proposed eliminating their budget. One way or another, Texas' drug task forces appear to be on their way out.

The City of Baytown hopes to keep the task force's remaining assets, upwards of $2 million, but Governor Perry should make them remit the money to the state. That task force covered two large counties, not just tiny Baytown, and there's no good reason they deserve the cash -- not during the current budget crisis. There are too many other things to spend the money on.

Kudos to Governor Perry and his Criminal Justice Division for nixing the task force. I hope this is a prelude to a decision to shift all the Byrne money away from task forces -- now that so few people in the state benefit from federal law enforcement grants, sticking with the drug task force strategy no longer seems like a fair distribution of funds.

It sure looks like the saga that began with the Tulia drug stings may yet end with the abolition of Texas' drug task force system in 2005.