Monday, March 03, 2008

SXSW features new "Tulia" documentary

The Tulia drug sting happened nearly nine years ago, but the reverberations from events in that small Texas town continue to ripple through the nation's psyche, both politically and increasingly, culturally. Though Halle Berry's feature-film version has been put on hold by her pregnancy, I received word yesterday via press release that the drug sting in Tulia, TX will be the focus of a new film - this one a documentary - released at the South by Southwest film festival next week. Here are the details:

TULIA, TEXAS Challenges War on Drugs

World premiere at SXSW Film Festival March 7 – 15, 2008


(Austin, Texas)--TULIA, TEXAS, a documentary film revisiting one of the biggest drug stings in Texas history, will make its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival ( March 7 – 15, 2008, in Austin, Texas.

In 1999, undercover narcotics officer Thomas Coleman and his drug task force rounded up and arrested dozens of residents of the small farming town of Tulia. Thirty-nine of the 46 people charged with selling cocaine to the man later heralded as “Texas Lawman of the Year” were African American. In the following years, disturbing evidence about the investigation and the police officer’s past began to surface.

Filmmakers Cassandra Herrman and Kelly Whalen visited Tulia in 2002 to discover how 46 people had been indicted on the testimony of one undercover cop. The imprisonment of more than 10 percent of Tulia’s adult black population sparked a high profile civil rights case that captured the attention of the national media. Over five years of filming, Herrman and Whalen set out to find meaning beyond the popular images in the mainstream media, developing the trust of key players on opposing sides, and gaining deeper insights into the injustices committed in Tulia.

TULIA, TEXAS tells the stories of the last remaining defendants in prison, the families and lawyers fighting for their freedom, and the sheriff, undercover agent and townspeople who stand against them. The small town's search for justice is a cautionary tale about the price American's pay for the war on drugs.

TULIA, TEXAS is a co-production of Cassandra Herrman and Kelly Whalen and the Independent Television Service. Major funding for the documentary was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


To learn more about the film and the issues, visit the film’s website at A downloadable press kit, including a documentary summary, directors’ statement, and publicity photos, is available at To request a DVD preview copy of the film, send an email to

SXSW screening times of TULIA, TEXAS (showing with Josh Brolin’s “X”):

March 8, 2008 – 2:00pm (Dobie Theatre) *Special post-screening appearance by featured characters from Tulia

March 11, 2008 – 9:30pm Dobie Theatre)

March 13, 2008 – 2:30pm (Alamo Lamar 2)

Texas ultimately abolished its statewide system of regional drug task forces as a result of Tulia and other drug task force scandals. This movie release comes at a time when similar drug task forces nationwide are facing budget cuts that could finally put them out of business, too, but oddly their chief defenders have been among the most liberal Democrats in Congress.

Here's hoping that the NAACP, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Heritage Foundation, or somebody who lobbies against Byrne grants in D.C. walks around the capitol to give copies of the DVD to offices of Senate Democrats (Tom Harkin, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama - I'm talking to you) whose past advocacy kept similar drug task forces alive.


Anonymous said...

The Texas Municipal Police Association researched the events in Tulia and found at least one way to prevent further atrocities. The officer that instigated the entire event, Thomas Coleman, had a record as an officer that was not reviewed by the agency that hired him. Further, the record was incomplete. They found there were no requirements for a comprehensive record to be kept on departing officers and no requirement for hiring departments to request such. State Representative Joe Driver, Chair of the House Law Enforcement Committee, along with Senator Kel Seliger, sponsored and passed HB 2445, commonly referred to as the “gypsy cop” bill. This bill requires departments submit an “F5” that details why an officer left a particular department and requires a hiring department to request the document.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, even before that, one of the initial "Tulia" bills carried by then Rep. Chuy Hinojosa and Sen. Whitmire made those F-5s public in certain misconduct cases, but then the AG (Cornyn, at the time) construed very narrowly what was available.

So TMPA came up with this idea as a pre-emptive strike, so that the Lege wouldn't go back and just make all the F-5s public. (Bills associated with Tulia tended for a while to have significant "legs.") What passed was an improvement, but TMPA fought like hell to make sure the public couldn't see the data at TCLEOSE on why cops are fired.

From my perspective, that was an okay bill that could have been a better one. I see no reason why that F-5 form couldn't and shouldn't be a public record in cases where the officer is fired for cause.

Anonymous said...

Charles from Tulia chiming in on this one as well:

Who was the hiring agency in this scandal? Sheriff Stewart insists it was the Panhandle Task Force in the person of a couple of Amarillo police officers. Panhandle Task Force insists it was Sheriff Stewart.

The hiring agency, whoever it was, may not have had complete information. But the perjury trial of Mr. Coleman revealed that they had enough information to know he was a bad cop. As the father of one of the Tulia defendants stated, "They needed a dirty man to do a dirty job." They got what they wanted.