Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Add our news to your site.

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.

More From Lewis Beale

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.