FEATURE An Even Keel? The TO talks to Rep. Terry Keel about killing off the Regional Narcotics Task Forces BY JAKE BERNSTEIN n this legislative session, where so many of the bills sponsored by legislators of both sides of Ithe aisle reflect a basic ignorance of the U.S. Constitution, it noteworthy that on the table by the front door of Rep. Terry Keel’s Capitol office are pocket-sized giveaways of the Texas Republican Party about 10 years ago. He is a rare commoditya true conservative Republican who is both practical and pragmatic. I ffiirther 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 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,” 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 sponabout $7 million in 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 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 progressiveson the death penalty, the environment, and abortion, to name but threeif meanin ul criminal justice reform occurs this session, it will be in large part due to Rep. Terry Keel. 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. There has been consistent scandal and malfeasance throughout the state and it is time for this experiment to end. 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/14/03
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