Thursday, July 19, 2007

DPS Commander O'Burke: Changing Outcome Measures Improved Texas Drug Enforcement

Testifying today before a joint Congressional oversight committee in Washington, D.C., Texas DPS Narcotics Division Deputy Commander Patrick O'Burke gave an account of efforts to reform Texas' regional narcotics task forces that focused on one of the least known facets of the much-written about Tulia saga, in fact probably the piece that ultimately led to all the other task forces' de-funding by the Governor: Implementation of improved "outcome measures" that focus on reducing drug trafficking rather than arresting large numbers of "end users." (Read O'Burke's written testimony.)

In 2002, with the Tulia debacle making international headlines, Governor Perry put all the Tulia-style task forces under DPS' control. Using the new outcome measures and strategic planning mechanisms for leverage, DPS forced all of Texas' Tulia-style task forces to either change their ways or close shop. (Many chose the latter, a fact which incidentally has had no discernible effect on the crime rate.) The most important changes were seemingly bureaucratic, but had profound implications: Creating new measurements by which to define success.

Recently I harped on inadequate performance measures in proposed contracts between the Texas Youth Commission and private vendors for housing delinquent 10-13 year olds, and it's my experience with drug task forces that caused me to focus on such minutiae. The old outcome measures for Byrne-grant funded drug task forces, said O'Burke, didn't measure whether law enforcement was achieving its goal of reducing drug trafficking. In his Congressional testimony today he declared:
For drug law enforcement these [outcome] measures have normally been defined by the following.

• The number of investigations and/or investigative reports written.
• The number of arrests for narcotics law violations.
• The amount of illegal drugs seized.

However, the above OUTPUT MEASURES alone can not adequately gauge if any success is being achieved in actually disrupting the illegal distribution of drugs. To define success by measuring only the sheer volume of arrests would mean that more arrests would equate with greater achievement. This clearly does not move towards the goal of crime reduction. Arrest numbers also do not attach any quality to that work product when the arrest of one drug user equals the arrest of one drug “kingpin”. Consequently, reliance on OUTPUT MEASURES alone for grant funding mechanisms or police performance evaluations may actually cause drug enforcement initiatives to fail to seek out reductions in crime.

Consequently, the Narcotics Service worked to develop OUTCOME MEASURES that will more adequately define if we are achieving a desired result. In the past, there have been outcome measures for narcotics enforcement that have been tied to changes in overall crime rates, reductions of drug overdoses, changes in pricing or purity of illegal drugs and surveys of drug use by certain population groups. While these may be useful measures for globally evaluating drug control policy efforts that contain education, treatment and corrections components, along with law enforcement, they can not be uniquely linked to the individual law enforcement effort.

As such we should seek to define outcome measures that are clearly linked to law enforcement initiatives in identifying and disrupting illegal distribution of drugs. Law enforcement is uniquely suited to disrupting or eliminating drug distribution by prioritizing its efforts and directing them towards identified drug traffickers and trafficking organizations. The Narcotics Service defined a “Drug Trafficker” as a person who works to illegally sell drugs with profit or income as the primary motivation. A “Drug Trafficking Organization” was then defined as five or more drug traffickers who work to illegally sell drugs outside of their immediate conspiracy. The desired outcome measures would then identify how drug enforcement efforts collect intelligence, direct their resources and subsequently impact these criminal groups.

As such the desired OUTCOME MEASURES developed included the following.

• Number of Drug Trafficking Organizations dismantled.
• Percentage of arrests defined as “targeted” Drug Trafficking Organization members and “targeted” Drug Traffickers who were successfully disrupted.
• Percentage of total arrests that are defined as “End Users”.

This outcome measure seeks to track the lack of or reduction of “End Users” arrests as a desired result for law enforcement efforts. The Narcotics Service defined the “End User” as a person who is the intended user of illegal drugs and generally motivated by addiction. Impacting the behavior of an “End User” may involve law enforcement actions, but are generally more effectively managed by treatment, corrections or rehabilitation options. As such directed investigations against these individuals should receive no priority from drug enforcement initiatives that seek to disrupt illegal trafficking. (Emphasis added.)

This overall change in strategy in Texas was necessarily accompanied by standardized operational policies that mandated professional standards for drug enforcement initiatives. These standards included background checks, ethical conduct standards, informant management requirements and protocols, and “Best Practices” for professionally conducting narcotics investigations. Finally a written measurement collection tool that accurately recorded key OUTCOME MEASURES along with other desirable measures was implemented for program evaluation and accountability.
So bottom line DPS declared they would no longer judge Texas drug task forces on how many arrests they made, but whether they were breaking up actual drug trafficking rings and generating intelligence that enabled narcotics officers to go after bigger fish. End users, by contrast, who for many task forces had been their main targets since their inception in the late '80s, were henceforth considered "no priority."

That was a big shift! After one year under the new rules, drug arrests by DPS went down by 40 percent, but drug seizures doubled because each arrest tended to target actual traffickers instead of users. (By contrast, a speaker from the National Narcotics Officers Associations Coalition extolled exactly the kind of outcome measures O'Burke criticized - indeed, they formed the main basis for his argument against further restricting informant use in any way.)

Without tooting my own horn too much, I can say without fear of Commander O'Burke's contradiction that the original impetus for DPS to revamp these outcome measures came from a public policy report I authored in 2002 when I was the ACLU of Texas Police Accountability Project Director. It was titled Too Far Off Task, and O'Burke later told me he was convinced to revamp their internal measuring stick because of this argument (p. 7):
Task forces’ goals are misdirected toward maximizing their “numbers.” The Goal Statement of the Deep East Texas Regional NTF was typical: “we have consistently been in the top ten number of felony arrests, value of drugs seized, and assist (sic) arrest. Our goal is to increase each of these categories by at least 10%.”

The 33rd Judicial District Task Force in Marble Falls promised a “5% increase in cases investigated and arrests.” The West Central Texas Interlocal Crime Task Force based in Taylor County uses as its outcome measures number of arrests and criminal cases filed, amount of narcotics seized, and non-drug assets seized.

But, if Texas’ goal is to rid communities of drugs, shouldn’t we at some point have as a “goal” that the number of arrests decline? And doesn’t setting goals of ever-increasing arrests and prosecutions create incentives for the kind of behaviors that caused the Dallas "sheetrock" scandal, and that caused then-Attorney General John Cornyn to name Tom Coleman “Lawman of the Year” for his role in the Tulia busts?
To their credit, Texas DPS' Narcotics Division took that critique to heart, expanding the idea well beyond what I had ever proposed. Not only did they stop using arrest totals and drug seizure amounts as the primary outcomes reported, O'Burke and crew began pioneering new ways to measure drug enforcement that focused on disrupting criminal drug gangs but consider "end users" more of a health than a police concern.

If the goal is to stop unnecessary violence and to minimize collateral damage among the mainstream public, I really think that's one of the smartest changes they could have made. It's especially important given the smuggling problem state drug enforcers face along the Texas-Mexico border.

Law enforcement only has finite resources; they should focus them primarily on the big operators instead of rounding up addicts and low-level offenders. It's good DPS gets that now, even if many local agencies in Texas still do not.

UPDATE: Read a related ACLU policy brief prepared for the committee that rehashes many themes and arguments you've read on Grits about snitching and drug task forces.


Anonymous said...

Props to you, Grits. It is always amusing to hear the DEA toot its own horn talking about the number of arrests and drugs siezed over the last few decades, when the retail price of cocaine has gone down while the purity has gone up during the same time. Sounds like the DPS has got its act together.

Anonymous said...

Toot all you want. The bottom line is violent crime has risen because local agencies in Texas cannot afford to dedicate money to narcotics enforcement, and DPS, through the O'Burke whitewash, only targets large organizations. Our local users, who we cannot MAKE endure rehab, must be arrested for their mere possession if we want to reduce local crime.

Of course, there's always legalization, and I've really got no problem with that. But since drugs aren't legal, and user crime has increased, how in world do you believe that your opinions are in any way related to a half baked DPS policy that is doomed to fail?

Get it straight. O'Burke doesn't give a popcorn fart about your opinion. He's protecting himself, his Governor and the DPS so that the money keeps coming.

Don't believe me? If you want insight into his character, ask the right people. Or don't...doesn't really seem to matter to folks who spend a whole lot of time tooting their own horns.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hey anon, I haven't heard from any disgruntled ex-task force cops in a while. Welcome. You may not like the DPS policy, but it's certainly true it was changed in reaction to the Tulia debacle and the report I wrote in 2002. As for O'Burke, of course he's protecting the DPS and the pols - what he's protecting them FROM, though, are failed policies that bit them hard in the ass in Tulia and Hearne, maximizing arrest numbers by targeting users.

Also who are the "right people" to ask about O'Burke? Gimme some names, let's hear what they have to say. best,