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.

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

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