Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Killing off Texas' drug-task force system: A reminiscence

State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa called this morning to reminisce about the effort to rein in and, ultimately, de-fund, Texas' system of multi-county drug task forces, a campaign referenced in this post, and he was such an unsung hero in that story, Grits thought it worthwhile to recount his role briefly.

State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa
The Tulia drug stings arguably mark the beginning of the 21st century Texas #cjreform movement, but by the time they occurred, Chuy Hinojosa was already a veteran legislator in the Texas House and was poised to chair the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in 2001. From that position, he carried and passed legislation to require corroboration for informants in undercover drug stings which was bitterly opposed by prosecutors and police unions. Then-rookie Sen. Leticia Van de Putte carried it in the Senate, and ended up taking on a bigger fight than she'd bargained for!

The campaign for a corroboration bill took on a life of its own, with local religious activists from Tulia organizing their people to come to Austin, while allies came out of the woodwork, from the right and left alike, in support of a drug-policy reform agenda which previously had no, obvious legislative champions. This was essentially tilling virgin, bipartisan terrain. (Check out a contemporary flyer from that campaign promoting our bill among religious conservatives; here's the "mainstream" version.)

The House floor vote on the Tulia corroboration bill was the first time in living memory that a bipartisan, grassroots, reformist faction outflanked the center-right ruling faction on criminal-justice topics. The media loved the Tulia story and trumpeted the success everywhere, helping bring additional resources and momentum to the nascent #cjreform movement in Texas. Groups like the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the Texas Fair Defense Project were created during this period in the early aughts - it was the first time the movement here had institutions as opposed to just a few disparate voices.

Perhaps even more importantly, that floor vote provided a template for passing a flood of reform legislation that followed. In retrospect, it was a pivotal moment.

Hinojosa continued to demand accountability from drug-task forces, and finally the other side pushed too far. In 2005, during session, the senator reminded me today, he was pulled over by a drug task force officer who suspected him of being a drug courier, perhaps because the senator was driving a nice vehicle. The senator believed he was being racially profiled, or worse, targeted for filing reform legislation to force all the task forces under control of the Texas Department of Public Safety. After that happened, the Senate's passage of the put-em-under-DPS bill was a fait accompli.

By this time, most of the Tulia defendants had been exonerated and pardoned, the cop who set them up had pled guilty to perjury, some of the task forces had been targeted via federal civil rights litigation, and your correspondent had spent several years compiling examples of task force abuses in a campaign based out of ACLU of Texas aimed at getting rid of them. In other words, the terms of debate had significantly changed.

The Legislature refused to get rid of drug task forces outright in 2005, but they did pass a compromise bill putting them under control of the Department of Public Safety Narcotics Division, which at that time was run by Patrick O'Burke, a square-jawed, no-nonsense guy who demanded more accountability using better metrics than they were used to.

In  the end, the majority of task forces refused accountability and declined to follow some or all of O'Burke's new rules.

Meanwhile, at ACLU of Texas, we were encouraging every eligible entity in the state that might compete with drug task forces for Byrne grant money to apply to the governor, even sending blank applications and pitch information to various local officials by snail mail and following up with calls encouraging them to apply. Many did, and every time one of them made a compelling case for funding, it simultaneously made an implicit case that the task forces shouldn't receive funds.

At this point, in 2006, then-Governor Rick Perry surprised everyone. Drug-task forces were funded through his office's Criminal Justice Division using federal Byrne grants, and he decided to turn off the spigot. A few task forces tried to keep going until their asset forfeiture money ran out, and others created single-county task forces outside of DPS control (and without state or federal money).

In the end, except for a few that scaled back to a much-reduced single-county footprint, they all just went away. When the Tulia drug stings happened, there were 53 multi-county task forces covering most of the state and employing around 700 narcotics officers who collectively made some 12,000 arrests annually. And then they didn't. Moreover, I dare say, for all the sound and fury surrounding their de-funding, I haven't heard them mentioned (by Texans) in years and as far as I can tell, no one misses them.

However, there's a somewhat dark and unfortunate coda to that story. When Gov. Perry de-funded Texas' drug task forces, he decided to split the pot of federal money to pay for two other priorities: 1) drug courts and other specialty court dockets, and 2) the original "border security" surge along the Rio Grande which presaged the current DPS/National Guard surge (read Melissa del Bosque's story on the border surge if you haven't already; go ahead, I'll wait).

Eventually, federal Byrne funds were replaced with hundreds of millions of general revenue dollars, most of it to pay for the Department of Public Safety to rotate troopers to the border for inefficient, short-term deployments.

So abolition of the Byrne-grant funded drug-task-force system in Texas was a victory for bipartisan justice reform - both liberals and small-government conservatives support scaling back the failed drug war - but it freed up funds for an unnecessary and problematic militarization of the border.

According to Sen. Hinojosa, the border-surge priorities issue goes far beyond just DPS troopers not making DWI arrests in the rest of the state. He cited Parks and Wildlife not having enough personnel for duties in the northern part of his senate district around Kingsville/Corpus Christi because they're all deployed in the Valley.

Grits appreciated the senator calling to reminisce after reading my drug-task force post from the weekend. There aren't that many of us still in the game who remember all of that well enough to tell the stories.

So, a day late after Memorial Day, here's a hearty thank you to a former marine, for his service a lifetime ago in Vietnam, to be sure, but for his yeoman's service on these topics, as well. ¡Gracias, Chuy! 


Anonymous said...

You guys missed giving credit where credit was due. The whole Harris County DA and Sheriff downfall was cause by, yes, Sheriff Deputies, but they were assigned to and under total control of the infamous Harris Co Organized Crime Narcotics Task Force, a CJD grant-funded program. Harris County elected officials took the fall, and Baytown PD dodged that lawsuit bullet.
In case you are re-writing history or a book, here's the facts:

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks for the link! However, far from missing the Harris County NTF, at the time I was part of the group pushing Harris County and the Governor to end it.

This was the first task force Rick Perry de-funded. By the following year, he'd eliminate funding for all of them.