The San Antionio Express-News' Zeke McCormack offered a piece about the recent demise of several Texas drug task forces funded by the federal Byrne grant program in yesterday's paper ("Drug agencies in transition," Oct. 16). As has become common when task force closings are announced, agencies tried to blame the Tulia episode and Texas' HB 1239 which passed this spring (proponents called it the "Task Force Beautification Act") for the collapse of the task forces. "'I think you had a few bad apples and it's killed the rest of us,' said Richard Dolgener, county judge in Andrews County, one of three rural West Texas counties in the Trans-Pecos Drug Task Force until it disbanded Sept. 30."
Dolgener's finger pointing shows a distinct diconnect from reality, indulging in extremist scare tactics that read much more into the new law than one would assume from the black and white letters on the page. Blustering with unfounded objections, he actually told the reporter law enforcement agencies couldn't even speak to one another anymore, but DPS said that's a wrong-headed view:
I can understand why task force backers who decided to disband would misrepresent the law. It basically says they have to comply with rules they were supposed to comply with before, anyway, but many outright refused. DPS wants them to go after actual criminal organizations, but most of them would rather bust low-level drug users. Indeed, House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman and Court of Criminal Appeals candidate Terry Keel (R-Austin) said that if Texas hadn't acted, Congress could have gotten rid of drug task forces entirely for the Lone Star state:
"We're just going to have a lot more drugs and contraband flowing free across the state because they've taken the task forces away and they've made it where you can't hardly work narcotic cases anymore," he said. "They've hurt us real bad."
He's been advised that his deputies can't confer with deputies in another county on a drug case unless they seek and receive DPS oversight, because otherwise their actions would constitute an illegal task force.
That's not how the DPS interprets the statute, agency spokesman Tom Vinger said.
"In our view, it's referring to formal task forces," he said. "Routine cooperation between law enforcement regarding crime is not prohibited."
"Multijurisdictional task forces would eventually have been wiped out entirely if we had not instituted professionalism in administration of those grants," said state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, chairman of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence.
"The U.S. Congress, in regard to their oversight of Byrne grant funding, had expressed concern about the problems in the old way that we had been doing things here, and there was serious discussion about whether Texas was going to receive any more funding for these kind of programs," he said.
"The changes were instituted in order to give Texas the best chance possible to receive these kind of funds to continue these kinds of operations," he said.
Keel doubts the law will hasten the demise of task forces.
"They were going away under the old law, not just because the left was looking at it and the feds were concerned about it, but because the local law enforcement in rural areas were not being well-served by this arrangement," he said.
"These were originally set up to do narcotics interdiction in rural areas where it was not being addressed," he added. "Instead they were gravitating toward more populated areas because that's where the money was, and the seized money often went to help fund their operations."
The biggest irony to me is that nobody, not even the task forces' most ardent backers, actually think they do anything to solve Texas' drug problems. Task force commander Bill Hill, head of the 216th drug task force in Kerrville, told McCormack, "The drug problem is not going to go away and anybody in law enforcement will tell you that law enforcement is not going to solve the problem ... But at least we served as a deterrent to a great many people, to either not get involved in it or to keep their heads down." Is that really true, though? Since arrests of low-level drug users by his agency and others increased every year, with no end in sight, it seems hard to justify claims that drug task forces have deterred drug use by Texans at all.
UPDATE: See the recent Texas Observer editorial, "No More Tulias."