An Even Keel?

The TO talks to Rep. Terry Keel about killing off the Regional Narcotics Task Forces

In this legislative session, where so many of the bills sponsored by legislators of both sides of the aisle reflect a basic ignorance of the U.S. Constitution, it’s noteworthy that on the table by the front door of Rep. Terry Keel’s Capitol office are pocket-sized giveaways of the Constitution. Keel (R-Austin) is not one of the Christian right ideologues that usurped the Texas Republican Party about 10 years ago. He is a rare commodity—a true conservative Republican who is both practical and pragmatic. If further proof is needed of what an oddity Keel is, one need look no further than his occupation: criminal defense attorney. While many of his Republican brethren place defense attorneys somewhere below tree slime, with little prompting Keel will launch into a monologue on the importance of their role in the criminal justice system. Then there is his staunch support of medical marijuana and indigent defense. (The former he now declares politically unfeasible in a Republican-controlled legislature.)

Keel knows the judicial system from the other side as well. He served as both an assistant district attorney and the Travis County sheriff. (Keel, accused of “showboating” and a “abusive manner,” earned more than his share of lawsuits and detractors as sheriff.) In a first in Texas politics, Keel jumped from sheriff to representative after his mother held the seat for him so he could finish his term. The mother-son handoff is not so surprising after a closer look at his family history. Keel grew up exploring the Capitol as a little boy. Thomas Keel, his father, ran the legislative budget board for 16 years. Now that post is occupied by his cousin, John. Additionally, both a brother and a sister serve as judges.

This session, the House leadership appears poised to embrace lowering the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders to save money. If it occurs, Keel, whom Craddick named chairman of the Criminal Jurisprudence committee, will likely deserve some of the credit. One of Keel’s other priorities is to abolish the regional narcotics task forces. As assistant DA and sheriff, he saw up close what a disaster the task forces are. Shortly after being elected sheriff, he withdrew Travis County from the task forces. (At press time Keel’s task force bill, HB 801, has bipartisan support, although no senate sponsor.) While some of the money for the task forces comes from asset forfeitures (about $7 million in 2002), most of it comes from state and local contributions ($10 million) and federal Byrne grants (about $27.5 million). The ACLU estimates that if the savings in the cost of incarceration for low-level drug offenders is added, abolishing the task forces could save the state $199 million this biennium. Additionally, the Byrne grant money could be used for other more useful programs like drug rehabilitation and domestic violence prevention.

Keel’s early decision to remove Austin from the task forces appears prescient. His replacement as sheriff foolishly took the county back into the operations. In June 2001, the Capitol Area task force killed a 19-year-old innocent in a drug raid targeting someone else and a deputy died in a badly planned raid. Austin’s scandals were minor compared to others: the well known Tulia case; a case in San Antonio, where an officer was convicted of stealing drugs from a task force evidence locker; in Wimberley, where a suspect accused of twice selling half an ounce of pot was killed by a task force in a raid; and in Hearne, where a crooked confidential informant helped set up 28 people. In Hearne, while most were freed when the informant’s lies were exposed in court, four defendants remain in jail. Those are just some of the more than 17 recent drug task force scandals in Texas. In reaction to the mess, Gov. Perry put the task forces under the Department of Public Safety (DPS), but the problems continue. The Texas Observer caught up with Keel, a fifth generation Austinite, to talk about the task forces. While many of Keel’s positions are antithetical to most progressives—on the death penalty, the environment, and abortion, to name but three—if meaningful criminal justice reform occurs this session, it will be in large part due to Rep. Terry Keel.

Texas Observer: Why are the regional narcotics task forces so scandal prone?

Terry Keel: Narcotics enforcement or interdiction is the area most ripe for police corruption, along with vice work, because the police tend to do a lot of undercover work, there tends to be a lot of money involved, and there tends to be a lot of human frailty. There’s all kinds of things that you are taught as a police administrator [about] operations. The structure of the task force violates almost every one of those principles. There should be strict oversight. The chain of command has to be directly involved on a regular basis. That doesn’t occur in these narcotic task force operations. They are an island unto themselves. You should also visit with your narcotics officers a lot as an administrator. You really owe them the obligation to pull them out of there. Some agencies rotate [agents] every two years. Nothing like that occurs in these narcotics task force operations. And most importantly, police agencies are accountable. Most law enforcement is at the local government level…95 percent of it or more, I’d say. And police abuse is accountable, usually to an elected body, like a city council or to an elected official like a sheriff. And therefore there is some protection in there for the citizenry against abusive police practices because they can remove people who are in charge of the operation. That doesn’t exist here. These task force operations are so nebulous and so unconnected to any accountable directly elected official that they just go off on their own.

TO: Gov. Perry put the task forces under DPS supervision. Does that solve the problem?

TK: That won’t do any good. DPS has a good narcotics operation. Generally they have had very good general orders and standard operating procedures. That’s the other thing I want to tell you. You run a narcotics operation with very strict standard operating procedures (SOPs) and I mean you run a tight ship. That was the intent in putting it under DPS throughout Texas. Let’s get some standard operating procedures and the stricter operations that comes with DPS oversight. Well, to some extent that was the right move, but it still won’t work because you have multiple agencies, usually rural law enforcement, [often] contributing inexperienced, untrained personnel to these operations. Even DPS can’t be expected to have the kind of supervision over these operations that will lead to accountability and expose them to the light of the day.

TO: If you abolish the task forces, what happens to rural narcotics enforcement?

TK: [The task forces] have failed to address rural narcotics problems. They were designed to do that. But they have not done that. Instead, they go to where the crime is, which is usually in the more populated areas, and simply run over the same ground that local law enforcement has already trod over. And the reason for that is because to a certain extent, it is revenue driven. And so there is a desire to get that revenue, so they go where the crime is. Well, the crime in many cases is not in the rural areas, so [the task forces] tend to gravitate toward the non-rural areas. So the very same people that say that they need this, for the rural enforcement, aren’t getting rural enforcement. And never will as long as this is the way they are structured.

This isn’t the same state that it was in the 1970s and it isn’t the state that it even was in the 1990s. We’ve come a long way on law enforcement in this state. Yes, we still have rural areas, but [rural sheriffs] would be infinitely better suited to coordinate narcotics operations with other agencies such as DPS. If they can point to a specific narcotics shortcoming in their jurisdiction, a rural area, then this money would be better spent attending to that narcotics situation in close coordination with that law enforcement agency rather than this pooling of several different rural agencies.

TO: How do you give cover to legislators who are worried about being seen as soft on crime?

TK: You tell legislators the truth, which is this: If you speak with narcotics investigators who come from large agencies with professional standards in Texas, they will tell you that [drug task force operations] are completely ineffective. You tell them that this is money down the drain that would be better spent by having these agencies coordinate efforts, not create rogue task force operations that are not accountable. [There] has been consistent scandal and malfeasance throughout the state and it is time for this experiment to end. And that’s what I will tell legislators. And my intent is to say that this money is not going to a sacred cow. This money will still be there.

TO: Do you think HB 801 will pass this session?

TK: I think it is going to pass because it’s the right thing to do. I know that right doesn’t always get things passed in the legislature, but this budget crisis is a unique opportunity for us. It is a blessing in disguise in some ways because we are going to look at some of the way we have been doing business in criminal justice and we are going to do things differently. And this is just one great example where we can save a couple of hundred million dollars by getting rid of something that we shouldn’t be doing anyway.

TO: What are some of the other things?

TK: We need to look at some of the sentencing that we are doing. We have an administrative license revocation on DWIs that needs to be flat out eliminated. We need to get that back to the judges who are determining probable cause in terms of allowing people to have or not have occupational licenses on criminal arrests. When the state government had a lot of money we created all these bureaucracies and some of them were not good, but they passed because [the attitude was] if it could be done, it was done. Now that we are looking for ways to save money, it is going to make us run a better operation. Now is the time. We may not have the opportunity to get rid of these things like the regional narcotics task forces except during lean times. It’s difficult when these types of things are created to get rid of them. There is a lot of money involved in this. You can buy a lot of toys with it. A lot of cars to be driven around and driven home. A lot of gas gets put in gas tanks. So it is going to be a difficult thing to get rid of. It’s a lot easier to create them. It will be an uphill battle, but I think it will be done.

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Published at 12:00 am CST