The War on Thugs

They were the jump-out boys—masked, black-clad narcs who busted dealers and jailed junkies all over rural Texas. Then came Tulia. Now the state’s drug task forces are fighting for their own survival. And that's a good thing.

September 2005By Comments

AT THE ANNUAL CONVENTION of Texas narcotics officers, held this year in El Paso in August, narcs in search of continuing education were offered seminars with titles like “Hidden Compartments,” “Body Language,” “Risk Management,” and—new for this year—“Narcotraffickers and the Spiritual World,” in which a retired El Paso cop explained how to identify the image of Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of drug dealers, during traffic stops. Next year, conference organizers may have to add another seminar: “How to Find a New Career.” Over the past four years, close to a quarter of all narcs in Texas have been laid off, victims of a severe contraction in the state’s biggest anti-drug bureaucracy. Even more cuts may be on the way, depending on the outcome of a budget fight currently going on in Washington, D.C. The writing on the wall is easy to read: After almost two decades of lavish funding, the drug war is no longer a growth industry in Texas.

More than one hundred people are sent to prison in Texas every day, and one in three is convicted of a drug crime. Until recently, chances were good that the bust was made by a narc from one of the state’s multijurisdictional drug task forces, or DTFs, which handle the lion’s share of drug enforcement in rural and suburban areas. The “jump-out boys,” as they are commonly called, are known for their black tactical uniforms and the masks they sometimes wear during raids. They specialize in “buy busts,” undercover purchases of modest amounts of drugs—usually cocaine or marijuana—from street-level dealers. The money for the task forces comes from a U.S. Department of Justice program known as the Byrne grant, which was hatched in the late eighties, at the height of the drug war. Over a ten-year period, the DTFs grew into Texas’s largest narcotics enforcement effort, accounting for roughly 12,000 arrests every year.

Then came Tulia. In 1999 a Byrne grant—funded narc named Tom Coleman set up dozens of people, most of them black, in the small Panhandle town, allegedly for dealing cocaine. In the four-year legal battle that followed, Coleman was exposed as a liar, and Governor Rick Perry eventually pardoned almost all of his victims. The scandal put the task force program—and the diminished standards of drug enforcement that it had come to represent—in the national spotlight. Coleman had a terrible track record in law enforcement and no previous narcotics experience, yet he was allowed to do undercover work with virtually no controls—no wire, no corroborating officer, no video. But what was most embarrassing about Tulia was how common such irresponsibility and amateurism had become among task forces across the state.

The Tulia fiasco could not have come at a worse time for narcs. After September 11, the Byrne grant was one of many funding streams targeted by a Bush administration looking to free up resources for homeland security. Drastic cuts in Washington in 2003 and 2004, coupled with fears of liability for Tulia-like scandals, have led to a rapid decline in the number of task forces nationwide. Nowhere has this trend been more pronounced than in Texas. By June 2005, more than half of the state’s task forces had dissolved. This year the president has once again proposed cutting the program’s funding, and the mood among narcs nationwide is grim. “There’s not going to be anybody out there in rural or suburban America to work that stuff,” said Ron Brooks, of the National Narcotics Officers’ Associations’ Coalition. “We’ll go back to 1978.”

Critics of the Byrne program say the cuts are long overdue. In 2002 the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, published a paper on the Byrne grant noting that it had made no discernible impact on drug crime. In the Texas Legislature, the main detractors of the program have been an unlikely pair: Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat from the Valley with strong law-and-order credentials, and Representative Terry Keel, a Republican from the Austin suburbs. Keel, a former sheriff who once served on the board of a drug task force, has advocated ending the program in Texas altogether. It has been an uphill fight. “Let me tell you what the political reality is,” he said. “You’ve got a whole bunch of these brother-in-law types out there running around with ninja suits and sunglasses, cars and guns and cash. That is a valued law enforcement lifestyle for those persons, and there are lots of them. And they tend to turn up the political heat on their local elected officials, including legislators, who they lead to believe that the sky is gonna fall if their job is eliminated.”

 

LAUNCHED IN 1988, the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program was named in memory of a New York City police officer shot dead by drug dealers that year, when crack and inner-city violence was the hottest story in America. In a ceremony shortly after Byrne’s death, Vice President George H. W. Bush, on a visit to New York in the last stages of his bitter presidential race against Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, held the dead officer’s badge in his hand and challenged Dukakis to come out in support of a bill before Congress that would allow the death penalty for high-volume drug dealers. For months Bush had been hammering away at his opponent for being soft on crime, and the Democrats, who then controlled Congress, took up the gauntlet. The result was the Anti—Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which was passed into law just before the election with shamefully little debate. “It is the declared policy of the United States to create a drug free America by 1995,” the preamble read. As preposterous as that language sounds in retrospect, by creating the Byrne grant, the bill did in fact have a drastic impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, though not in the way most members of Congress had envisioned.

By the late nineties, the Byrne task force program had been eclipsed by better-funded and more-publicized endeavors, such as crop eradication in Colombia and interdiction along the nation’s borders. Yet the Byrne money never stopped flowing, and the task forces quietly flourished. There were more than eight hundred at the beginning of 2003, employing between 5,000 to 7,000 narcs. (The Justice Department does not know the exact number.) For comparison, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the nation’s premier anti-drug bureaucracy, has about 5,300 agents. In a relatively short span of time, the Byrne grant, an ambitious experiment conceived in the heat of a political campaign, created an entirely new tier of law enforcement nationwide.

In Texas, drug enforcement outside the major cities was traditionally handled by the Department of Public Safety, which has maintained a narcotics unit since the early seventies. But DPS Narcotics was bypassed entirely when Texas established its first Byrne grant task forces, which were administered by the Texas Narcotics Control Program (TNCP), a new entity created inside the governor’s office. This was no accident: Byrne money was seen from the beginning as a form of pork, a valuable way for the governor to seek favor with rural and suburban voters. By federal standards, the amount of money involved was modest; in the late nineties roughly $500 million per year in Byrne money was allocated nationwide, a little less than half of which was spent on drug task forces. (Though Texas spends almost all of its Byrne funding on task forces, the money can also be used for a variety of other law enforcement purposes, including drug treatment programs.) In cash-strapped rural Texas, the Byrne money was a gold mine. Many rural sheriff’s deputies and police officers earn less than $20,000 per year and are forced to moonlight at second jobs. Some even qualify for food stamps. Turnover is very high.

The governor’s office was flooded with applications for the new source of funds. Ambitious sheriffs and district attorneys vied with one another to recruit neighboring counties into their new outfits. The program required the task forces to come up with matching funds equal to one quarter of the total budget; federal grant money, passed through the TNCP, covered the remaining three quarters. The more counties a task force project director could sign up, the more sources of matching funds he had access to and the bigger the potential grant from Washington. The program received a huge boost in 1989, when the Texas Legislature allowed law enforcement agencies to keep cash and other assets they recovered in the course of their operations, providing an alternate source of revenue for the all-important cash match. By the late nineties, almost every county in the state was in a task force, and task force narcs outnumbered DPS narcs almost three to one.

The jump-out boys were not like state police narcs. The DPS has always prided itself on its professionalism. Applicants must pass written, physical, and psychological tests, and officers are relatively well compensated. An assignment to the narcotics division is a highly sought-after promotion and carries a certain prestige. For task force agents, by contrast, the trip from patrol deputy in a one-stoplight town to undercover narc might involve a single two-week training course. As a result, the standards of narcotics enforcement across the state gradually eroded.

“These narcotics task forces are the antithesis of every good law enforcement management technique,” said Representative Keel. “The officers in the narcotics task forces do not have a chain of command that watches them carefully. They are left undercover and loosely supervised in some cases. They have unbridled discretion often on their interdiction decisions, and they deal with large amounts of cash. Now all of that is a formula for disaster.”

Because the task forces often operate in rural areas, far from major media markets, stories of malfeasance tend to stay beneath the radar. Read enough clips from small-town papers, however, and a pattern begins to emerge. Rogue officers, missing drugs, stolen cash, fabricated cases, failed drug tests: Every small town in Texas seems to have a story of corruption involving the jump-out boys. “People don’t understand,” said Barbara Markham, a task-force-narc-turned-whistle-blower, in the wake of the Tulia scandal. “Everybody’s talking about Tom Coleman. Well, there are whole task forces of Tom Colemans out there.”

In April 2001 the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union announced that it 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. Attorneys from the national ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project filed suit, making Hearne, and Byrne grant—funded task forces generally, one of their top priorities. As in Tulia, the defendants in Hearne were almost all black, and the cases were mostly for delivery of cocaine. The informant was a young black man with a history of drug abuse and mental illness. The local district attorney, who was also the head of the task force, was warned by his own polygraph examiner that the man was dishonest. But he pressed ahead with the prosecutions, until the snitch’s poor performance on the stand in the first case resulted in a mistrial. The snitch later claimed that task force officers coerced him into fabricating cases. Before the scandal broke, the district attorney abruptly resigned from the task force; later, the commander and several agents left as well. The eventual settlement of the ACLU suit in Hearne this past May, like the multimillion-dollar settlement in Tulia the year before, set the precedent that all counties and municipalities belonging to a task force would be financially liable for misdeeds perpetrated by task force officers, regardless of where they took place and who actually hired the officer in question. That got the attention of rural commissioner’s courts—and their insurance carriers—across Texas, hastening the statewide exodus from the program.

 

IN TEXAS, AS IN MANY STATES, the scramble for Byrne money is a competitive, zero-sum game: One task force’s funding increase is another’s loss. The TNCP developed a complex system of rating the relative success of the various outfits, weighing such indicators as number of cases opened, buys made, suspects arrested, drugs confiscated, and assets forfeited. In 1999, for example, thanks in large measure to Coleman’s bust in Tulia, the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force was the top-ranked task force in the state.

This statistics-driven model of law enforcement has meant a dramatic increase in drug arrests. Not surprisingly, the growth of the task force system in Texas has also coincided with a massive acceleration in prison construction. In what amounted to the largest public-works project in modern Texas history, the state more than tripled its prison capacity—from 40,000 to 150,000 beds—in just ten years. (Texas now has more inmates than California, even though Texas has 40 percent fewer people. Only Louisiana and Mississippi incarcerate a greater percentage of their populations.) There were many factors driving this expansion, including stricter parole guidelines and overcrowding lawsuits, but the task forces were central by any reckoning. According to civil rights advocates like Texas ACLU executive director Will Harrell, the emphasis on statistics has overshadowed more-pressing questions. “Nobody is looking at quality control. We’re simply looking for quantity,” he said. “That’s what the drug war is about: How many people have you arrested and locked up today?”

A focus on street-level buys more often than not means targeting black suspects, which helps explain a couple of striking statistics in Texas. African Americans account for 12 percent of the state’s population but 40 percent of prison inmates. On any given day, roughly one in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is in jail, on probation, or on parole. “It’s just too easy. They never go up the chain,” defense attorney Walter Fontenot, of Liberty, a small town in East Texas, said of the task forces. “If you dig into this stuff, you will find that most people are black, most people are poor, and they just cop out and get probation. A couple of years later the probation is revoked, because they go back to the same thing because that’s all they know,” he said. “It’s all about numbers,” said Anahuac defense attorney Ed Lieck, who has battled his local drug task force for years. “More numbers means more money.”

In 2002 Governor Perry announced that he was assigning supervision of the state’s Byrne grant drug task forces to the DPS. The transition has been a bumpy one. When DPS Narcotics captains made preliminary visits to their new charges, they discovered many of them in disarray. At one outfit in the San Antonio area, for example, evidence was missing from 20 percent of the unit’s case files, forfeiture cash was not properly accounted for, and commanders had “little contact or supervisory control” over some of their agents.

The DPS crafted new rules for the task forces, bringing them more in line with established policy for state police narcs. The use of masks in the serving of arrest warrants was banned, and procedures for control of evidence and use of confidential informants were tightened. Some task forces refused to accept the new command structure and chose to shut down rather than change their ways. A few announced that they would forgo Byrne grant money to avoid DPS oversight. These “renegade” operations subsisted for a couple of years on their own asset forfeiture accounts—some had accumulated huge hoards prior to the takeover—until this summer, when the Legislature finally forced them to comply with DPS supervision or fold altogether.

 

THE TASK FORCE PROGRAM has been on the ropes before; President Bill Clinton tried unsuccessfully to pare the Byrne grant down in 1994. But this time might be different. It has always been politically easier for Republicans to cut law enforcement programs, and violent crime is now at a thirty-year low. Last February, in testimony before Congress, even national drug czar John Walters said it was time to focus attention higher up the supply chain. “Otherwise, you are chasing primarily small people,” he said, “putting them in jail, year after year, generation after generation.”

For those who have become addicted to the annual grants, however, keeping the Byrne program alive has become an end in itself. Sensing the shift in the prevailing winds in Washington, task force directors have lately begun including “homeland security goals” in their grant applications, struggling to make a connection between combating drug abuse and fighting Al Qaeda. (The Waco-area task force, for its part, announced that it would be providing some unsolicited extra security for the Bush ranch in Crawford.)

“I’ve been doing this for ten years, and law enforcement is about money,” said Lieck, the Anahuac defense attorney. “Anybody who tells you different is lying.” After seventeen years, some veterans of the task force experiment in Texas are not shy about this fact. A former prosecutor affiliated with a Denton-based task force freely admitted that he offered lighter sentences to suspects who agreed not to fight forfeiture of cars, cash, or other items of value confiscated during drug investigations. “If we don’t have enough money by the end of the grant year, we’re all out of a job,” he told the Dallas Morning News in 2003. His candid remarks earned the ire of the task force’s director, Denton County sheriff Weldon Lucas. There’s no need to be embarrassed now, however: Late last year, the task force folded.

Adapted from Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, by Nate Blakeslee. Copyright © 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Book Group (perseusbooks.com). All rights reserved.

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