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Taking Drug Task Forces to Task

• April 17, 2009 • 12:00 PM

Film takes a look at the unintended consequences of one weapon in the arsenal devoted to the war on drugs.

In November 2000, a drug task force arrested 28 residents of Hearne, Texas, almost all of them African-American, and charged them with distributing crack cocaine. Pressed to plead guilty to the charges by their public defenders, several of the accused did, but Regina Kelly, a single mother of four, refused. The American Civil Liberty Union’s Drug Law Reform Project eventually took up the case and filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 15 of the arrestees, accusing the local district attorney and the

South Central Texas Narcotics Task Force with conducting racially motivated drug sweeps for more than 15 years.

That case, which wound up with the charges against all the ACLU’s clients being dropped due to insufficient evidence and the tainted testimony of an unreliable police informant, is now the basis of a movie, American Violet, opening nationwide on April 17th. Starring newcomer Nicole Beharie as Kelly, as well as Alfre Woodard, Tim Blake Nelson and Charles S. Dutton, the film is practically a primer on drug-task-force abuses under what is known as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Program.

Enacted in 1988, and recently refunded under President Obama’s stimulus package, the Byrne grant program is designed to help states and local jurisdictions fight drugs and the violent crime associated with drug trafficking. The program provides federal money in 29 specific “purpose areas,” including crime-victim assistance and alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, but most of the grants are intended for police activity. And a good deal of the money disbursed is predicated on the number, not the quality, of drug arrests.

“Throughout America, Byrne grants are consistently used to target very low-level drug dealers for arrest and long-term incarceration,” said Graham Boyd, lawyer for the Hearne plaintiffs and director of the ACLU’s Drug Law Reform Project. “You have a drug task force whose goal is to arrest as many people as they can, their funding stream is based on that, so they rely on confidential informants, and their racial profiling is staggering.”

“The block grant is based on population and crime rate,” added Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network. “Because it’s based on arrests, the incentive is to focus on arrests, and the more the better. They have an incentive to go after low-level drug dealers, and it leads to civil rights offenses because they have quotas to fill, and that might entail cutting corners.”

Hearne was not the first case, nor the most notorious, involving drug-task-force abuses. That honor belongs to Tulia, another small Texas town where, on July 23, 1999, and based on the word of a single informant, 46 people, 39 of them African-American, were accused of selling drugs. As recounted in Tulia, Texas, a documentary recently shown as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series [available on DVD at www.newsreel.org], the informant, Tom Coleman — at one point named “Texas Lawman of the Year” – had a checkered law enforcement career, did not wear a recording device during any of his alleged drug buys, made numerous evidentiary errors and was accused of being a racist.

In 2003, a Texas court voided 38 of the Tulia arrests (several of the cases had already been dismissed), and in 2005, Coleman was convicted of perjury when a jury found he had lied about his own arrest for theft during a hearing on the drug cases.

As egregious as these cases were, Boyd says incidents like this are “still happening all over America.” And they serve to point out several gaping holes in the well-intentioned, but flawed, Byrne grant program:

• The use of confidential informants, many of them criminals themselves, whose uncorroborated testimony is used to obtain drug convictions.  The Hearne informant, for example, had a history of drug addiction and mental illness. “The way informants get used reflects a reality that there are few checks and balances on how law enforcement uses them,” said Boyd. “It’s easier for them to do this than send in an undercover officer.”

• The lack of jurisdictional control. “There’s a problem that goes with regional drug task forces,” said Piper. “Because they are made up of people from different areas, there is a lack of oversight. There is no one entity you can blame, because they’re multi-jurisdictional.” Case in point: In both Hearn and Tulia, the cases were solved on the county, not town, level.

• The task forces are self-sustaining. “They use asset forfeiture, which only exists for drug crimes,” said Piper, “so police tend to focus on that. Because they can keep what they seize [cash, cars, weapons, etc.] and they get the federal money, they are independent from state and local concerns, and they don’t have to go to the city council and justify what they’re doing.”

• The impact on the black community. African-Americans, who make up about 13 percent of the total population, now account for more than 50 percent of all drug arrests. Piper refers to mass drug arrests in Hearne, Tulia and other places as being akin to “Vietnam War-like body count statistics,” which are “used to measure success.”

At least Texas got the message. The Lone Star State became the first in the country to require corroboration of informant information to make a drug arrest. Texas also stopped taking Byrne money for drug cases and made them the responsibility of the state police, the Texas Rangers.

And the state changed its drug-war measurement criteria. Officers used to be graded on how many arrests they made; now it’s how many drug trafficking organizations they have identified, infiltrated and dismantled. “You actually lose points the more end users — drug offenders, people selling to feed their habits — you arrest,” said Piper. “What they’re trying to do is get people to stay undercover, work their way up, so they can take down a big trafficker, and that’s revolutionary.” Because of this, says Piper, drug arrests in Texas dropped by 40 percent last year, but drug seizures doubled.

Still, there are more than 600 drug task forces in the country, and at least a dozen Hearne-like scandals reported in the last 10 years. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s more than enough for the people sent to jail on tainted evidence, perjured testimony or pressured into plea bargains in order to avoid jury trials and potential sentences of 30 years or more.
Even worse, says Boyd, is that in small, under-financed communities, the desperation for Byrne grant money is so great, “there’s evidence of police being taken off Main Street and being put into these drug task forces.”

The bottom line is what this all says about how the war on drugs is being waged, and according to Boyd, Hearne and Tulia “are Exhibit A on why the war is a failure. It’s ineffective, expensive and generates a level of racial targeting that has no place in America today.”

At least, added Piper, there’s a little ray of hope emerging from the Obama administration. Naming Seattle police Chief Gil Kerlikowske — known for a progressive and community-based approach to drug issues — to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy could mean that law enforcement will not be the drug czar’s only emphasis.

“Both Obama and Kerlikowske have talked about dealing with this as a treatment issue, dealing with the demand side,” says Piper. “Short of repealing drug prohibition, it’s the most effective way of hurting the drug cartels — you’re reducing their profits.”

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Lewis Beale
Lewis Beale is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsday and many other publications.

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