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End of an Era

The clock runs out on the state's infamous drug task forces
by Published on

A major chapter in the drug war is ending in Texas, not with a bang, but with a whisper. After 18 years of untold numbers of highway stops and undercover busts of mostly small-time pot and cocaine dealers, funding for the state’s network of regional drug task forces officially runs out on March 31. Don’t look for a press release from the governor’s office, however. Officially, Governor Perry is not ending the program. “We haven’t told a single task force to close its doors,” press aide Rachel Novier said in early March. The governor is just not going to write them any more checks. Last December, Perry announced that he was shifting his focus to the border, where a new program dubbed Operation Linebacker will funnel anti-drug funds to counties along the Rio Grande. The meaning is clear enough to the state’s task force commanders, who have been announcing the disbanding of their outfits on an almost weekly basis.

Even before this most recent turn of events, the program was in trouble. Texas task forces, like those in rural and suburban areas across the country, have long been funded by a federal grant known as the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, which has been gradually drying up. These budget cuts, together with the fallout from a series of harmful scandalsˆ„the travesty in Tulia being the best knownˆ„had already reduced the number of task forces operating in Texas from a high of 51, when Perry first took office, down to 22 this spring. Still, Perry’s latest move is a major shift in policy. According to Ron Brooks of the National Narcotics Officers Association, while the future of Byrne-grant task forces is in doubt nationwide, Texas is the first state to give up on the task force program altogether since the recent budget cuts. “There may well be a domino effect, but I’m hoping not,” Brooks said.

For those who have followed the recent history of the Byrne grant program, it comes as little surprise that Texas has become the first domino to fall. Texas has had the highest profile scandals and, perhaps not surprisingly, the most organized opposition to the model of drug enforcement that the task force program has come to represent. The headquarters of that opposition is a former halfway house in a blighted neighborhood about a mile east of downtown Austin, which has housed the state offices of the Texas ACLU for the last several years. Led by a couple of experienced activists named Will Harrell and Scott Henson, the ACLU has emerged as the task force program’s leading antagonist in Texas and has provided much of the fodder used by the Byrne grant’s critics in Washington. Harrell, a 41-year-old, pony-tailed, barrel-chested Houston native, cut his teeth as an organizer in Guatemala in the 1990s. He had just become the executive director of a newly resurgent ACLU when the Tulia scandal broke (in these pages) in the summer of 2000. Henson, a 39-year-old veteran of both electoral and grassroots campaign work, was working as a volunteer for the organization. He was known as a crack researcher and for a time had made his living digging up dirt on candidates for local political consultants. (Henson is also a former associate editor of The Texas Observer.)

Harrell seized on Tulia as the first big campaign of his tenure. He brought the children of Tulia’s wrongfully arrested defendants to the steps of the Capitol in Austin , where he hosted a rally for what he termed the “war orphans” of Tulia. That same spring, the group announced they had found “another Tulia” in the central Texas town of Hearne , where dozens of indictments were dismissed after a task force snitch admitted to fabricating cases. Like Tulia, Hearne wound up in the national press as another black mark on Texas’ beleaguered criminal justice system. Harrell, Henson, and their colleagues managed to get a couple of modest reformsˆ„which they dubbed the “Tulia bills”ˆ„through the 2001 Legislature, a considerable accomplishment in the law-and-order climate of the Capitol. As it turned out, they were just getting started.

Scott Henson

Henson began work that summer on a comprehensive report on the task force program in Texas, linking for the first time not only the incidents in Tulia and Hearne, but a whole host of under-the-radar scandals he had collected from across the state, all involving regional drug task forces. The report, which the ACLU released in December 2002 under the title “Too Far Off Task,” pinned the problem squarely on the task force model itself and advocated scrapping the entire program. The task forces had become known for hiring bottom-of-the-barrel “gypsy cops,” Henson argued, and were too driven by competition for arrest statistics, on which their grant funding relied, and seizure of drug cash and assets, which they used to augment their budgets.

In 2002, Governor Perry’s office, responding to the twin scandals in Tulia and Hearne, announced a major reform of the task force system, giving the Department of Public Safety operational oversight of the task forces. The move, which meant that task force commanders would have to adhere to the generally stricter policies and procedures of the DPS Narcotics division, was anathema to some task force commanders, who announced that they would give up Byrne funding rather than submit to DPS oversight. The ACLU, for their part, felt the reform was a half-measure. The long-term goal was still abolition, and the group found an unlikely ally during the 2003 legislative session in State Representative Terry Keel, a Republican from the Austin suburbs. A former prosecutor and sheriff, Keel had impeccable law enforcement credentials, but as a former task force board member, he also had firsthand knowledge of problems involving how the task forces were set up. The problem was not just a few rogue narcs, Keel argued; it was a confusing chain of command that too often left officers unsupervised and task forces unaccountable to local authorities. Keel, who memorably called task force agents “brother-in-law types in ninja suits,” managed to get a rider attached to the House appropriations bill that would have abolished multi-county task forces altogether. The rider made it through the House untouched, to Henson’s amazement. “Surprisingly few people in law enforcement were willing to defend these agencies,” Henson recalled. Their reputation had plummeted in recent years. What the task forces did have going for them, however, was the support of the governor’s office. Arguing that the governor’s 2002 reforms hadn’t had time to take effect, Perry’s office intervened in the budget conference committee to get the rider stripped off at the last possible moment.

There were signs, however, that the governor’s office was losing confidence in the program, which had generated so many negative headlines for Texas nationwide. A week after the session officially ended, 13 task force commanders received a letter from Perry’s office informing them that they would be losing their funding. The outcry from local sheriffs and district attorneys affiliated with the targeted task forces was instantaneous.  By the end of the day, the governor’s office had faxed a new letter to eight of the task forces claiming the first missive had been a mistake. While the letters may or may not have been the result of “clerical error,” they had the practical effect of testing the breeze on the future of the program. Byrne money, for better or worse, had become a kind of pork, and the governor apparently decided he was not quite ready to be the one who took it away.

The pork tag had begun to stick in Washington, however, where the conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report critical of Byrne, arguing that the program had made no discernible impact on drug crime. President Bush, seeking to free up funds for homeland security, tried for the first time to zero out the program altogether. Back in Texas, Henson was fast becoming the bane of task force narcs statewide. His new blog, called Grits for Breakfast, became a clearinghouse for stories of task force malfeasance that Henson culled from small town newspapers and a variety of sources he had cultivated around the state, some of them in law enforcement. “Grits” quickly became one of the most popular sites for criminal justice reform advocates, not just in Texas, but also in Washington, D.C., where groups like Drug Policy Alliance were attempting to raise awareness of the harm the Byrne grant was causing out in the hinterland. Henson also began work on a second major task force report for the ACLU, this one focusing on highway interdiction, the bread and butter of the task forces. He filed a slew of massive open records requests, prying as many internal documents from reluctantˆ„and often terribly disorganizedˆ„task force commanders as he could. Among other things, the resulting report documented that task force officers were abusing so-called “consent searches” during stops made without probable cause and that black drivers were more likely to be stopped than white drivers. The report also demonstrated shortcomings in Perry’s recent effort to provide DPS oversight of the program and called once again for the program to be abolished.

With no organized response from the Texas Narcotics Officers Association, which represented task force narcs, the ACLU seemed to be setting the terms of debate at the legislature. In December 2004, the same month that Henson’s second report was released, an interim House study of the task forces led by Terry Keel also recommended abolishing the task forces altogether. Will Harrell had been cultivating a relationship with a state senator from the Rio Grande Valley named Juan Hinojosa, who filed a bill at the beginning of the 2005 session that would end multi-county task forces once and for all. Hinojosa recalled that the Senate did not need much persuading by that point. “I think we always knew there was a problem, but Tulia and Hearne brought it home for us,” Hinojosa said. Harrell and Henson organized lobby days to get people to the Capitol, always hitting on the same themes: dishonest or poorly trained cops, no accountability, wasted money. “There’s no doubt that Scott and Will played really key roles in getting the legislature involved,” Hinojosa said. The task forces didn’t help their own cause: During the session, Hinojosa was stopped by a task force officer in his district for no apparent reason and briefly detained on the side of the highway. When the task force commander later accused Hinojosa of trying to make political hay out of the stop, his fellow senators rallied around him. “If this is how they treat a state senator,” Hinojosa recalled, “what is happening to the average person that gets stopped?”

Representative Terry Hodge of Dallas carried Hinojosa’s bill in the House, where it passed easily. Dating back to 2003, the House had now voted to abolish the task forces through one bill or another an astonishing four times. Once again, however, the governor’s office intervened behind the scenes on behalf of the program. Fearing a veto, Hinojosa accepted a compromise: task forces had to agree to come under DPS supervision if they wanted to continue operating as multi-county outfits; there would be no more so-called “rogue” task forces that funded themselves and made their own rules. It was not the bill the ACLU was hoping for, but the word around the Capitol was that the program might soon be dying on its own. “We knew the end was coming anyway,” Hinojosa said, who thought of the compromise bill as political cover for the governor’s office, which was already thinking ahead to damage control if and when the axe fell on the program. In October, Perry’s office told the remaining task forces not to reapply for another year’s funding, granting them instead a six-month extension to the end of March and leaving their future in doubt. The other shoe dropped in December, when Perry announced Operation Linebacker, which would eat up the lion’s share of Byrne funds. After a last futile round of lobbying their local state representatives, task force commanders around the state began preparing for the end of an era.

In interviews with small town papers over the last few months, those commanders have sounded a note of resignation. Most have blamed the scandal in Tulia, rather than the governor’s office or the state legislature, for the death of the program. (A notably bitter exception was Midland County sheriff Gary Painter, one of the state’s most flamboyantˆ„and notoriousˆ„drug warriors, who told the Midland Reporter-Telegram that he’d been forced out of business by DPS.) Overall, Perry’s “killing them softly” approach seems to have had the desired effect of deflecting criticism from his office, though it has led to some confusion about just what the future will hold. When I asked DPS spokesman Tom Vinger if he had heard from the governor’s office about the future of the program, his first response was, “What’d they tell you?”

While he conceded that losing the task forces was a big change, Vinger insisted that narcotics enforcement in rural and suburban areas was not going to simply fade away, as some task force commanders have worried aloud in recent months. “Go ask your local sheriff if he’s going to stop enforcing drug laws in his town,” Vinger said. Still, it’s hard to overstate the significance of this development. At their peak five years ago, the task forces employed around 700 narcotics officers, roughly two and a half times as many as the DPS. All told, about one in every four narcs in Texas was employed through the program, which accounted for around 10,000 arrests per year. Thus far, only one task force, based in Wichita Falls, has announced plans to continue operating as a multi-county outfit, relying for future funding on a combination of local revenue and drug cash and assets seized during operations. Rachel Novier of the governor’s press office applauded this move, calling it a “model” for how the program might continue. So far, however, no one else seems to be willing to give it a try. Ironically, some former commanders have reported that leaving the task force model behind has allowed them to actually increase narcotics enforcement, at least in their hometowns, because they are no longer responsible for running undercover operations in far-flung, sparsely populated multi-county areas.Another irony of the decline of Byrne is that some drug war reform advocates may soon join the nation’s narcs in trying to save the program from being cut altogether in Washington. That’s because the Byrne grant funds not just task forces, but also a host of other criminal justice initiatives, including such progressive reforms as drug courts, which divert low-level offenders out of the prison system. Perry’s office has been quietly shifting small amounts of Byrne money to such programs over the last few years, something that Henson and other reformers would like to see continue.

The death of the task force program is not the death knell of the drug war in Texas, nor even the end of multi-jurisdictional programs. In recent months, Henson has begun digging into a little-known federal program known as HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), under which DEA agents supervise task forces composed of local sheriffs and police officers. Though a much smaller program than Byrne, Henson has already begun collecting reports of malfeasance with disturbingly familiar themes. First, however, Henson, who is now working out of an office at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, is taking some time to celebrate. “I consider getting rid of the task forces the political equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing to the right-field fe
ce [before his fam
us home run],” he said. “We completely changed the way people think about drug enforcement in this state. We said all task forces need to go away, and in just a few years, they’re all gone. You don’t get many victories that look like that.”

Former Observer editor Nate Blakeslee is the author of Tulia: Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town.