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FEATURE End of an Era The clock runs out on the state’s infamous regional drug task forces BY NATE BLAKESLEE Amajor 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 smalltime 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 scandalsthe travesty in Tulia being the best knownhad 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 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 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 reformswhich they dubbed the “Tulia bills”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. 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-thebarrel “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 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 24, 2006