Monday, February 11, 2008

Texas' Tulia Lesson: Dems Should Join GOP in Abandoning Failed Drug Task Force Strategy

Several recent bits of news remind us (reflectively, if not nostalgically) of Texas' defunct system of drug task forces, the most famous of which was the one in Tulia, where 39 people were convicted on the uncorroborated testimony of a single, rogue undercover cop, Tom Coleman. Eventually most were pardoned by the Governor and Coleman was convicted of perjury.

Most recently, Coleman's perjury conviction was finally upheld by Texas' criminal courts, Kuff informs us, declaring rightly, "I presume this will be the last we hear from Tom Coleman for awhile, at least until the Tulia movie hits the screens."

The Tulia episode began a multi-year saga whereby the Department of Public Safety tried to take over management of Texas' task forces, but failing to gain compliance with new rules, the task forces proved unmanageable. Finally, in 2006, a re-election year, Governor Rick Perry pulled the plug on this dysfunctional system, shifting money from regional task forces to give grants to border sheriffs in an homage to his conservative base on immigration and "terrorism."

The lesson from Texas was that these task forces were virtually rogue (or certainly unaccountable) by nature. Imagine a nightmare bureaucracy that's federally funded, locally staffed, and managed by the state! The people who manage don't hire and fire; the people who hire don't manage, and the people who fund it all do neither; truly nobody had control of anything, and there was always some bureaucratic excuse why it was nobody's fault.

At their height, Texas had 51 of these odd, pseudo-entites employing around 700 officers with federal grant money. But Tulia wasn't just a Texas problem, these agencies are a source of scandal and a harbor for rogue officers nationwide.

Even those task forces that weren't rogue in Texas were almost exclusively focused on low-level transactions and large-scale sweeps of users. Partially as a result of task force abuses, the Texas Department of Public Safety changed its own rules governing its Narcotics Division to give "no priority" to arresting users and focusing investigations on "Drug Trafficking Organizations" made up of five identifiable conspirators or more. As a result, though DPS drug arrests declined 40%, they got "bigger fish" and captured more than twice as much dope in the first year of the new strategy - this at a time when overall US drug seizures were declining.

When Gov. Perry abolished the last of Texas' drug task forces two years ago, law enforcement interests predicted the sky would fall. But you know what happened? Nothing, or at least nothing bad. Some agencies that participated in abolished task forces found they made more drug arrests than before! (Whether the money's new recipients - Sheriffs participating in "Operation Linebacker," "Wrangler," "Rio Grande," etc. - have used the money in ways that reduced crime is another matter.)

In Washington, in his final budget, President Bush continues his years-long drive to de-fund these task forces at the national level, convincing Congress to slash last year's funding for these grants by 2/3. As in years past, it's the Democrats who are up in arms. Drug War Chronicle has good coverage of the D.C.-side politics of cutting these funds.

As happened when Perry eliminated Texas' regional drug task forces, we see local headlines cropping up around the country like, "Authorities fear rise in drug trade if federal funds are cut," or "Drug war at a crossroads," hyping the drug problem as though failing to dole out these pork barrel grants were the equivalent of failing to provide combat troops with body armor. Just like in Texas, though, those other states will find that locking up scores of low-level drug users without treatment or rehabilitation services wasn't making them safer.

Somehow we must get the message to our brethren states: Not only will the sky not fall if you get rid of regional drug task forces, you'll probably be better off.


Unknown said...

Are these the commando style drug raiders who scare the hell out of innocent people when they get the address wrong or act on bogus info? I personally know of two botched raids - that never made the headlines in our local rag. Did they shift the funding to local cops? If so, then I haven't been reading [but overhearing] about the "reformed" War on Drugs. Since a disproportionate share of police come from the military, it must be a thrill to put on that body armor and attack [relatively] defenseless civilians.

Anonymous said...

The current E-mail scandal/debacle in Harris County with the DA & Sheriff was as a result of a lawsuit field against members of the Harris Co Organized Crime Narcotics Task Force.
What goes around, comes around......

Anonymous said...

I was at an ABA conference last week, and the defender community is worried about a decrease in Byrne funds because defender offices in other states have received Byrne grants to hire social workers, etc. to assist clients with addiction issues. The Byrne program is one of the few pots of federal money from which defender offices can seek grants. In Texas I'm pretty sure Byrne funds were never awarded to support defense services, but at a national level the fact that these grants have been used to support holistic defender programs seems to be driving some of the opposition from the D side of the aisle.

A Marsh

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm sure that's true, Andrea, not every state spends their Byrne money on task forces. In fact, Perry gives part of the Byrne money now to programs I support in Texas - not all of it goes to the border sheriffs.

But the task forces are the reason Tom Harkin, John Kerry and the Democratic leadership always name when they hold their press conferences, and it's where the bulk of the money goes, or at least was a few years ago when I was keeping closer track of it.

And yes, JT, there are plenty of wrong address raids attributed to these guys, and much more. See public policy reports I did for ACLU on the subject here and here.

Fun tip about the Harris Co. TF and the email scandal - I hadn't made that connection, but it's a good 'un! best to all,

Anonymous said...

That's right, JT. Read the Fallacy King's most inaccurate works, printed under the guise of truth by the aclu.

Lubbock? Almost ALL of that task force was funded by Lubbock officers. Of COURSE they have more manpower to concentrate on their own city. The difference is the Federal govt doesn't pay for it now.

You'll get it right one day, Scott. It's not your opinions that disgust me, it's your lies.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Look, I'm sorry your agency got de-funded. It made you angry. I get that. But be specific, please. What lies?

Also, if you admit that Lubbock is better off for the task force being de-funded, what's the problem? You're just mad that a pork-barrel fund got cut, but there's no argument to be made that disbanding task forces in Texas harmed public safety, and it arguably improved it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

JT, my apologies - looks like those links are dead. TCJC is revamping its website, I'm told. I'll try to re-post the pdf files somewhere else and put the links up, or if anybody wants copies, email me at shenson[at]

- The Fallacy King

Anonymous said...

They should've subpoenaed the Harris Co TF e-mail, they would've gotten some serious porn and racial messages.

Anonymous said...

The Task Forces were a dismal failure. The were a political answer to an unsolvable local problem. Smaller jurisdictions didn't have resources or interest in undercover operations or traffic interdictions that had little effect on the local situation.

Along come the task forces. Local law enforcement generally got a pass, they passed the info to the TF, and didn't have to follow up. When asked about drugs, they point to the task force.

The TF was largely responsible for two things. 1. Make large PR sweeps of insignificant drug users/sellers (a cottage industry at best in small towns) and 2. Support itself with traffic interdiction. Generally focused on the major nearby highways. This had two drawbacks; get the money, not the drugs (cars going west, not east)and absolutely no effect on the local drug situation (They were just passing though).

The sweeps were strictly for PR purposes with no real intent of lessening, much less stopping drug use or sales.

The bottom line? A political PR campaign for the locals and a fundraiser for the TF with little interest in actual drug seizures.

Anonymous said...

The thing I found most worrisome from a 'checks and balances' position is: When Federal funds (and control) trump State funding (and the local control that came along with it) at what point do local LEO personnel cease to be locally-controlled and become de facto Federal officials? Where is the line drawn?

Further, seeing as Black males are incarcerated at a higher rate than Whites for the same drug-related offense, the political aspect of nullifying the votes of minorities (who tend to vote Democratic) via felony voter disenfranchisement becomes unavoidable. You'd think the Democratic Party would be aware of this instead of urging more funding for a program that, plainly, hurts them at the ballot box. But rationality has never been a hallmark of this 'war'.