Study the Task Forces


Even Walter Cronkite has had enough of the war on drugs. On the first page of California Judge James P. Gray’s exhaustive study Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed, America’s most venerated journalist declares the drug war a failure, just as he famously did the Vietnam War in 1968. In recent years, the decades-old drug war has become the great counter-example for criminal justice public policy. In an interview in the October 15 New Yorker, for example, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy explained his reservations about Attorney General John Ashcroft’s new antiterrorism bill, which greatly expands police powers, with an anecdote about one drug cop’s abuse of power. When he was a district attorney in Burlington in the 1970s, Leahy discovered that the area’s most vaunted narc was planting evidence and manufacturing cases. In the aftermath, 71 persons were pardoned. It might have been 72, but one had committed suicide in prison. “I have great respect for law enforcement,” Leahy said. “But there have to be checks and balances. As they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In Texas, the absence of such checks is the subject of a proposed interim legislative study of the state’s regional drug task forces. Speaker Pete Laney should authorize the study, requested by State Representative Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen). Hinojosa, who authored several reform bills last session, has distinguished himself as a leader in the effort to reform the worst abuses of the drug war, and he should be allowed to continue his work. As Nate Blakeslee’s careful examination of one East Texas drug task force (“The Numbers Game”) in this issue demonstrates, things have become severely unbalanced in the Texas drug war. The Observer has chronicled drug war abuses before, most notably in the panhandle town of Tulia, where over ten percent of the black population was rounded up in a single undercover operation. Only later did the truth about the undercover agent, Tom Coleman, come to light, including his shady past and suspect undercover methods. Yet the problem goes beyond individual cops. “People don’t understand–everybody’s talking about Tom Coleman,” said Barbara Markham, a narc turned whistle-blower, whose story is told in this issue. “There are whole task forces of Tom Colemans out there,” she said.

The problem is not with personalities, but with a model of law enforcement that has spread across the state since the late 1980s. Regional drug task forces, partially self-funding and accountable to no local government, spend millions every year with little oversight from state or federal authorities. What began as a crusade has become another level of law enforcement bureaucracy, with all the attendant imperatives, including the most important of all: justifying it’s own existence. More and more task force critics are coming from the ranks of those most familiar with the system, including cops, defense attorneys, judges, and prosecutors, who have witnessed first-hand how the relentless drive for statistics–hard evidence of progress– above all else has corrupted the process. Task forces rack up the numbers, filling our prisons with arrest after arrest of small-time dealers, while making no dent in the availability, cost, and purity of drugs on our streets.

Yet these are no ordinary bureaucracies. The drug war tears communities apart. Lives are turned upside down. People are killed. As we learned in Vietnam, unwinnable wars don’t become less violent, they just get less honorable. It’s time for a change in strategy.