Sunday, December 30, 2007

Wichita Falls task force proves asset forfeiture can't finance drug units

There's a lesson to be drawn from the final demise of the North Texas Regional Drug Task Force based in Wichita Falls: It's hard for an honest privateer to make a living these days.

One of the last remaining Tulia-style drug task forces, the North Texas task force had hoped to continue operations based solely on asset forfeitures and funds seized from drug interdiction on the highways. As media everywhere publish their year-end retrospectives (Grits' own feature on the Top Ten Texas Criminal Justice Stories of 2007 will appear tomorrow), we find news from the local daily that the task force couldn't make their budget just by seizing funds. Reported the Times Record News ("Top stories of the year," Dec. 29):

The North Texas Regional Drug Task Force closed down in 2007, victim of budget cuts. The consortium of law officers had served 23 counties in drug investigations. The Texas Legislature curtailed its funding of regional task forces and federal grant money was diverted to other purposes.

Another factor was the trend of drug traffickers to choose methamphetamine over cocaine, which resulted in lower cash seizures by the task force.

City and county governments chipped in enough money to keep the task force, which operated out of the Wichita Falls Police Department, running though 2007. But the money wasn’t available for 2008. The task force officers were absorbed into WFPD or other agencies.

The two reasons given by the Times Record News for the task force's closure deserve closer attention. It's certainly true that Governor Rick Perry eliminated funding for Texas drug task forces in 2006, shifting the money to pay for border security grants to 16 Sheriff's departments along the Rio Grande, an initiative which itself has met with mixed results. That's what caused the North Texas Drug Task Force to venture out on its own, attempting to operate based on forfeiture funds.

But the second reason given explains why THAT plan failed: "the trend of drug traffickers to choose methamphetamine over cocaine, which resulted in lower cash seizures." The narco-warriors simply couldn't make enough money through asset forfeiture to make the special unit worthwhile.

Fighting crime should not be a for-profit enterprise, which is what they tried to turn this task force into in Wichita Falls. It's one thing to occasionally benefit from asset forfeiture funds, and quite another to rely upon them routinely for one's annual budget. It was a bad idea from the start and I'm pleased, if unsurprised, to discover that it failed.

When the Tulia scandal broke in 1999, Texas had more than 50 of these regional drug task forces. With the demise of the Wichita Fallas TF, we're down to four, none of them any longer receiving federal Byrne grant funds. The fate of these task forces, perhaps especially the one in Wichita Falls, represents an important step in the ongoing shift in thinking in Texas about how best to combat harms from drug abuse and trafficking.

15 comments:

Curmudgeon said...

Asset forfeiture should be handled by the state, where all assets are collected and disposed of through the same apparatus, one dedicated to this task, and the money should go into the general budget.

There should be no finder's fee, otherwise cops will be encouraged to commit armed robbery, making them no different than the mafia, ripping off people, taking their cut, and kicking the rest upstairs. Matter of fact, it would make them members of organized crime.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, sure. Send more money to "the state" so that our legislators can figure out where to add pork.

(insert eyeroll here)

Nothing wrong with asset forfeiture going to supplement law enforcement efforts. But, as a former T.F. person, I agree that it shouldn't be necessary for existence.

If it were merely icing on the cake, oh, say, to the tune of about 30% retained, and the rest went to area courts, the Texas judicial system would be better served.

Anonymous said...

Your title is absolutely wrong. Wichita Falls doesn't have the pipeline/highway access that others would have, and therefore cannot finance a task force.

Other areas in Texas, four that I'm personally aware of, are doing just fine without help from Perry, O'Burke and the like.

Let me hand pick six former task force interdiction officers and create a unit, at a cost of about $600,000 a year, and I can virtually guarantee $2 million in asset seizures annually.

DPS does it. They used to call them "CLE" troopers, until the whole racial profiling thing got outta hand. Now they hide them amongst the regular troops. Shame, too, because a couple of them were some of the best in the country when they weren't hampered by the Kernals poor enforcement strategy.

rage judicata said...

Why don't we just make all judicial and law enforcement income generating? I mean, if cops investigate crimes and give tickets, why not charge the crime victims for their investigative services, or make tickets $1,000 each to pay for salaries and equipment? Why not make civil court filing fees a couple thousand dollars to help pay for judge salaries and court staff? Why not make criminal fines large enough to pay for judge and staff salaries as well?

Because if there's anything that should be run on a for-profit basis, it's justice.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If what you say is true, 8:38, more of the task forces on major highways would have continued after their grant funding ran out. That they did not, IMO, means nobody else could make that proposition work, either.

Anonymous said...

Asset forfeiture is a thinly veiled form of piracy. Prisons for profit is a form of corporate slavery. Justice for profit is tyranny of a corporate nature...you know,fascism.The war on drugs is immoral, outdated and soon to be unfunded...you know,bankrupt. The prohibitionistas will just have to crawl back under from where they came from...you know,the rock of racism.

kaptinemo said...

It's always amazed me the underlying assumptions that were made when these laws were proposed. namely, that because there would always be drug trafficking, there'd always be money to take in forfeiture.

More proof that the so-called 'War on Drugs' was always meant to be waged, never meant to be won; to do so would put these modern versions of thieving 18th century 'highwaymen' out of work, now wouldn't it?

Anonymous said...

8:38 here.

Wrong again, grits. As part of the DPS "command and control" authority, interdiction was not an approved method of dealing with the state's drug problem. DPS advised the offices that as interdiction does not "investigate continuing criminal enterprises", it has no place in the modern/O'Burke enforcement model.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, good for O'Burke, then, I didn't know he'd prohibited that. God forbid you target actual crooks instead of random cars on the highway with limited enforcement resources!

In any event, in 2002 and 2004 I reviewed the financials for Texas task forces in some detail, and in only rare instances did asset forfeiture ever make up even the entire 1/4 matching funds required from the locals, much less the entire agency budget. The big exception was the TF in Abilene, which benefited from one of the state's biggest ever forfeiture scores. But for most of them, it's just not true that it was possible to sustain themselves that way. And thank heavens.

Oh, and to 8:09, they're not pirates, they're "privateers."

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Oh, I should also mention that according to O'Burke's Congressional testimony this summer (my blog paraphrase), "After one year under the new rules, drug arrests by DPS went down by 40 percent, but drug seizures doubled because each arrest tended to target actual traffickers instead of users," so they must be doing something right.

Anonymous said...

Doing something right? You claim to study financials, so I'm wondering why you don't care about the origin of O'Burke's suspect stats, but instead take him at his word. I'd venture it's because the only truth you concern yourself with is that with which you agree. Pitiful.

Now, ask yourself what the hell DPS was going to be faced with, having no "stat" competition from 45 closed task force offices and about 500 former narcotics officers? Hmmm, a bunch of seizures maybe???

As for interdiction, DPS still does it, all day every day. They just don't give it a special name anymore. They do, however, have it posted in special publications that the average Joe isn't privy to. And, once again, they no longer have to compete with task force interdiction gurus to make their seizures.

What O'Burke effectively did was shut down the task force system. Not a bad idea considering the way they were run, but an awful idea considering the potential. Yet for O'Burke, the real accomplishment was making DPS the sweetheart of local and federal legislators, the media, special interests and folks on the left end of the spectrum, all at the cost of the truth.

Which reminds me why this is Your blog and not legitimate media. Not a wisp of curiosity for the truth.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:10 - stop making assumptions about my motives, or other people's for that matter. If you know of documentation that would support what you say, tell me and I'll take a look. Otherwise, I've heard your schtick before and you needn't repeat it every time you stop by.

Sorry your task force got defunded - oh, wait ... no I'm not. :)

rage judicata said...

Not a wisp of curiosity for the truth.

The truth is that since they switched from the style of interdiction that you advocate to the style that they currently have, DPS seizures have doubled.

You think they're doing something wrong by going after the big fish and getting it before it hits the local distributors, or do you think that they should let the drugs trickle through the system just so you can justify your salary by arresting a bunch of small fish?

Small minds don't see the benefit of the big picture. I imagine that's why you're having so much trouble.

Anonymous said...

I think going after the big fish is a great idea. And, as a former TF officer, I also agree that the way things were run led to the problems. Things needed to change drastically.

My issues are that:
1. Scott is waving pompoms for Pat O'Burke and DPS, and I'm amazed.
2. In our area, organized, violent and drug related crimes are increasing, and nobody has the money or manpower to do anything about it.

For the first time anyone can remember, including in the 1980's, a local town had two drive by shootings in a month...drug related.

As for DPS interdiction, if you're dumb enough to accept O'Burke's "stats", you're smart enough to win an internet argument. Yay for you.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Scott is waving pompoms for Pat O'Burke and DPS, and I'm amazed"

That's because, as you acknowledge, the TFs were really screwed up and he did more than anyone else to try to rein them in.

Also, I was there when my 2002 report came out and, rather than respond defensively, he incorporated many of the more substantive recommendations into the new rules that DPS applied both to TFs AND their own Narcotics division officers. The results were dramatic, both for TFs and for DPS' own stats. I'm just giving credit where credit's due, and I've seen no contrary data, despite all the whining and O'Burke hating on this and other strings.

Second, one anecdote doesn't justify your task force, and those killings could easily have occurred anyway. Nothing stops locals from paying for sufficient law enforcement to investigate violent crime, drug related or otherwise. I suggest you contact your local officials and demand a tax increase to pay for more officers. If there's a need, they should support it.