Sunday, March 30, 2008

Revisionism begins in effort to restore drug task force pork: PR blitz another good reason why Congress should slash Byrne grant funding

The Amarillo Globe News this morning offers a revisionist history of events leading to the closure of drug task forces in the Panhandle and across Texas ("Police: Rethink drug reforms," March 30), arguing that "one bad apple" in the Tulia case shouldn't have cost all drug task forces their funding. Indeed, this morning's piece drifts so far from the historical record, I have to wonder if its just another volley in the coordinated national PR blitz aimed at convincing Congress to reinstate their pork barrel funds.

In particular, the Globe-News touts one of the national pro-pork talking points that's really inapplicable in Texas, declaring, "Some rural police agencies say nabbing drug kingpins in less-populated corners of the state has gotten tougher since a 2005 law went on the books regulating how task forces are organized and coordinated."

Kingpins? Huh?

That hardly squares with the actual history of the referenced 2005 law, which required task forces to comply with new Department of Public Safety rules that gave "no priority" to arresting end users, instead requiring that they focus on "drug trafficking organizations" (DTOs) involving multiple people.

In other words, the new law REQUIRED them to go after "kingpins" instead of the petty users once swept up in large numbers with virtually no reduction in major crime. Far from making it "tougher" to go after "kingpins," the law they're complaining about insisted they do so. But those cases are harder to make, while busting users in low-level cases is like shooting fish in a barrel. Many balked at the extra work and responsibility, preferring to rack up large arrest totals from low-level possession cases.

Another strange aspect to the Globe-News story was the insistence that all these legislative changes were made in response to one "one bad apple" - Tom Coleman in the Tulia case. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What really put that legislation over the top wasn't Tulia, but revelations that many task forces had endured scandals around the state and the rest of the nation, combined with management snafus at DPS. The innocent people set up in Hearne perhaps garnered the highest national profile, but numerous other cases arose that would give reasonable people pause. The fundamental problem with Byrne task forces, in Texas and elsewhere, has always been their flawed structure. They're federally funded, managed by a regional pseudo-entity outside formal chains of command, and staffed with officers assigned by local departments. Those conflicting lines of authority mean no one is accountable to anyone, at the end of the day.

The referenced law did not mandate the task forces' abolition. When the Department of Public Safety installed new controls in reaction to flawed outcome measures and documented problems in Tulia, Hearne, and elsewhere, most task forces chose themselves to close up shop rather than operate under rules that targeted "kingpins" instead of users.

Once a majority of Texas counties no longer participated in Byrne task forces, shifting their funding to border enforcement was actually an easy political decision for the Governor to make.

Which brings me to another quibble: Contrary to the thesis of the article, the task force in the Amarillo area did not close in response to SB 1125. Local officials ended it on their own well before then because they didn't want a repeat of liability issues they experienced with the Tulia sting. Ditto for the one in Lubbock. Most urban jurisdictions in Texas pulled out of the task force system well before this legislation passed, much less before the Governor pulled the plug on funding for the final remaining few.

In other words, the Globe-News and local law enforcement unfairly blamed legislators for decisions that were made by their local county commissioners court! What's more, the reporter could have discovered the error just by searching his own newspaper's archives. (This article supplies a great example of why I despise "journalistic balance." It takes misleading statements by law enforcement, "balances" them with a quote from Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, then presents the resulting hodge podge to readers as though it's "just the facts.")

Still another odd aspect to this cry from the wilderness (and the dateline of the story is from Dimmitt, TX, so that more or less really is the wilderness): the writer seems oblivious to the national politics surrounding these funds, though he'd have learned much with a quick Google. There's a terrific chance the entire program nationally will be cut by 2/3 in the federal budget that takes effect this fall, so they're asking for more money at a time when overall funds are dwindling.

The story didn't mention this national context, but it seems to mitigate substantially the likelihood that anyone will take seriously a plan to revive Texas' task forces. The state would have to use general revenue, at this point, and the chance of that happening are virtually nil.

H/T to Rev. Charles Kiker for emailing the story.

RELATED: Texas' Tulia Lesson: Dems should join GOP in abandoning failed task force strategy


Anonymous said...

Most real law enforcement agencies didn't want to be controlled by DPS, because DPS Narcotics was pretty much a joke in the narcotics investigation community. DPS knows how to do traffic enforcement
(ie write speeding tickets) out in the rural county areas but rarely patrols the urban inner cities.
They don't know how to do street-level narcotics investigations(or general law enforcement), much less going after Mr Big.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Perhaps, Lt. Daniels, though with 300 officers DPS Narcotics is by far the state's largest and most important anti-drug unit now that the task forces are gone, and they seize a lot of dope. Most US agencies seizures declined last year; DPS' doubled in their first full year under the new rules de-prioritizing user busts. (Don't have their last year's number offhand for apples to apples.)

I've heard similar comments about DPS from ex-TF officers since their demise. But even if what you say is true - and I'm unwilling to grant that the agency over the Texas Rangers knows nothing about police investigations outside traffic enforcement - it's fair to say the task forces were also a joke to "real" law enforcement. Departments tended to send their dregs there, their problem officers who it was easier to transfer than fire. That's still true in many states where they operate.

Also, the task forces didn't work the "urban inner cities" in Texas, either - none of the PDs in the larger cities participated in the program. Nor were they well known for going after "Mr. Big." They were mostly a rural phenomenon focused largely on arresting addicts and the lowest level user/dealers, especially in the last decade of their existence.

We're doing fine without them. There are a lot more important things on which to spend federal grant money.

Anonymous said...

And of course, you have to ask just how much of that grant money is being used for in in violating the Hatch Act. Ostensible 'civil servants' engaged in 'featherbedding' their agencies at the public expense; an old, old game, but one with much higher stakes, thanks to the DrugWar having become so lucrative to law enforcement courtesy of (not so civil) civil forfeiture. They'll never be able to stop the drugs, so they may as well get what goodies they can buy with the money they get, as they wouldn't be able to in ordinary circumstances (being controlled by municipal, county and State budgets). All because of the DrugWar. What a racket...

Anonymous said...

Didn't know that you had any street experience, Grits.
I'll bet that most all of the kilos seized by DPS were from traffic stops performed by troopers on Highway 59, using time honored profiling techniques, not high level source of supply investigations by the narco bubbas.
Most local agencies go after low level street dealers because that is who the low level residents of the streets complaint to their local politicians about.
Nobody complains to city council about the Cali cartel causing crime in their neighborhood.
If you were out on the streets every day, you'd know this already.
Texas Rangers? pleeeasse