Monday, October 17, 2005

Keel: Congress would end drug task forces without reform

If you ran a drug interdiction agency that failed to reduce drug crime throughout its 17-year existence, you might be defensive, too.

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:

"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."

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:

"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."


Anonymous said...

Drug Task Forces are not just a problem in Texas and money drives those task forces in the same way it does a drug trafficker.

That said, look for the local departments in Texas to find other federal funding mechanisms like HIDTA, OCDETF, and DEA.

They'll find funding and they'll find a drug task force that's federally funded, just not Bryne Grant Funded.

Tulia won't end the problems with drug task forces because Tulia wasn't just about funding. It's about funding something with no oversight, scrutiny, accountability, and inspection.

Do you really believe that the other federal fuding mechanisms have better oversight?

They don't and Texas is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to corrupt drug task forces that are federally funded.

The rest of iceberg is located in the other 49 states.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm with you, my friend, and I wish I knew how to influence D.C. more or to export what's happened here to other states. But I figure us Texans have to take care of our own affairs. You start where you are, you know?

That said, to Grits readers outside Texas: You've got these task forces in your backyards, too, plus the HIDTA and others the commenter mentions, which are all pretty similar and problematic in many of the same ways as Byrne task forces. It's all a massive subsidy to a failed strategy. Suggesting a better one that shifts money to more productive programs has been a successful approach in Texas, and the same argument applies, for sure, in all 50 states.