Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Did Operation Linebacker achieve its goals? If not, why continue it?

During the campaign season, Gov. Perry said he wanted to boost funding for Operation Linebacker-style border enforcement operations ten-fold, proposing that the Legislature spend $100 million to supplement his new, election-year "emergency" program.

Is that realistic now?

Since then the Governor has changed his tune somewhat on immigration topics, thankfully, but the question remains: What will happen with Operation Linebacker and Texas' current, politically driven border enforcement efforts?

The El Paso Times' Louie Gilot tackled that queston ("Crime rises in spite of Operation Linebacker," Jan. 8) by tackling the premise, asking whether Operation Linebacker funds already spent on the border had reduced crime. The answer, "No." Crime increased (click on the image for details), though to be fair, the border comparatively sees significant crime less frequently, anyway, than many other regions in the state.

Perry's spokesman and El Paso Sheriff Samaniego defended Operation Linebacker, saying that more boots on the ground would obviously increase safety. But the more important question is what are the people filling those boots doing with their time?
A previous study by the El Paso Times found that during six months while Operation Linebacker was in effect, officers caught suspected undocumented immigrants seven times more often than they apprehended suspected criminals.

In El Paso, sheriff's deputies intercepted 1,076 undocumented immigrants; they made 161 arrests, four of them drug-related.

So if, as Governor Perry has indicated, Linebacker funds were intended to fight violent drug cartels and "well-armed narco-terrorists," these data appear to show they've done little but redirect local law enforcement forces AWAY from narcotics enforcement. During election season, Perry's campaign claimed massive drops in crime because of Operation Linebacker, but those figures were almost immediately debunked.

Let's face it, only FOUR drug related arrests for all the money spent in El Paso County? These taxpayer dollars were plain and simply sacrificed on the altar of political expediency (money burns nicely, doesn't it?) during an especially nasty election season. Polls and pundits predicted harsh anti-immigration stances would ignite the conservative base and create a wedge issue for the GOP, but that wedge turned against many of those who used it in November.

As a result, the likelihood of increasing Operation Linebacker funds 1,000% this session, to me, at this point appears unlikely.

El Paso state Sen. Elliot Shapleigh has filed three bills to address the problems arising from Operation Linebacker: SBs 150, 151 and 152.

SB 150 would disallow Texas peace officers from detaining people solely because of their immigration status or inquiring about immigration status except as part of a criminal investigation. SB 151 extends the same prohibition on inquring about status to emergency services personnel. Clearly both these are needed, though they'll be the subject of heated debate.

But the really controversial idea, politically speaking, comes in SB 152: Requiring that any officers paid with state grant funds (like Operation Linebacker) come under the command and control of the Texas Department of Public Safety. That was the solution the Legislature came up with for Texas' drug task force system in 2005, and many counties decided they'd rather receive no funds than let DPS govern this funding. Most decided to close shop, so many in fact that finally Governor Perry pulled the plug on the handful remaining and that's actually where the Linebacker money came from in the first place!

So we've come full circle. From the time then-Gov. Bush shut down the Permian Basin drug task force in 1998 for misconduct until today, Texas has struggled to spend these Byrne Justice Assistance Grant funds accountably, and that's still a problem. Indeed, the program basically everywhere shows similarly poor results. A Bush Administration analysis rated the grant program 13% based on "Results/Accountability" nationwide.

Hard to say how much traction Shapleigh's bills might have in the coming session. As one of the Senate's more liberal members sometimes he has trouble passing bills on such hot button issues.

For my money, though I like the first two bills, Shapleigh's SB 152 proposal perhaps doesn't go far enough. I'd like to see any new border security funds focus first on reducing border corruption among law enforcment which has undermined both the efforts of many good officers and initial public support for the Linebacker effort. But I'm glad to see somebody tackling these topics, and hope the 80th Legislature can do SOMETHING to make sure these taxpayer dollars won't continue to be wasted.

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