Page 28


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. Task Forces, continued from page 17 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 sixmonth 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 flamboyantand notoriousdrug warriors, who told the Midland ReporterTelegram that he’d been forced out of ing 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 lon -ger 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 lowlevel 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 multijurisdictional programs. In recent months, Henson has begun digging into a little-known federal program known as HIDTA \(High Intensity Drug 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 fence [before his famous 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. MARCH 24, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23