Drug Crazed

Millions in federal tax dollars are being spent by narcotics task forces in Texas to nab low-level users and dealers. Is this any way to wage a drug war?

"You have these people from whatever walk of life they are from," says Wyatt. "They walk into a courtroom, and they see a young black man sitting at the defense table. And their first thought is, 'I wonder what this guy did.' And when they hear the word 'cocaine,' they start making assumptions. The presumption of innocence is supposed to be there, but in order to get somebody to recognize that presumption of innocence, and maintain it, you got to change the way they think. And it's real tough to do. They have no point of reference. All they know is drugs and black male."

In March, a Robertson County jury, composed of 11 whites and one black, deadlocked 11-to-1 for the acquittal of Corvian Workman. A few weeks after the trial, with the credibility of his informant in shambles, the district attorney of Robertson County dismissed the charges against Workman and 16 other people who had been arrested during the November roundup. Thinking about the 11 defendants who pleaded guilty before he raised questions about the legitimacy of the arrests sends "a chill up my spine," Wyatt says.

Both the ACLU and the NAACP have asked the Justice Department to investigate.

Junction defense attorney Kirby Roberts accuses task forces of being too lazy to go up the food chain looking for drug dealers.
Steve McVicker
Junction defense attorney Kirby Roberts accuses task forces of being too lazy to go up the food chain looking for drug dealers.
Trista Hoard, center, says undercover officers in Brady targeted kids.
Steve McVicker
Trista Hoard, center, says undercover officers in Brady targeted kids.

District Attorney Paschall "does have to bear some responsibility," Wyatt says. "He took taxpayer funds, and he expended them on this confidential informant, which was a waste of taxpayers' money. In the end, he did the right thing" by dropping the charges. "But his motives may have been the scrutiny and the fact that he couldn't get a conviction. He had to cover his ass."

But Paschall, who has been replaced as head of the task force, has not been the only official in Robertson County with an exposed derriere. Following the arrests in November, Hearne City Councilman Workman introduced an idea that he believed would deal with the city's drug dealers and users in a more evenhanded way. Workman's plan, which initially was approved by the council, called for the city to spend $370,000 to hire North Carolina-based private security company ShadowGuard to enforce drug laws in Hearne for four months--and to put an end to racial profiling while enforcing those laws.

"From your words to God's ears," says ShadowGuard President Rick Castillo. "Because that's basically what we found. Hearne, Texas, is 50 years behind the times in terms of anything relating to affirmative action."

Castillo found that in a city where African-Americans make up almost 50 percent of the population, there was not one person of color on its police force. In addition to bringing in its own officers, who would have been licensed by the state of Texas, ShadowGuard would have trained the Hearne Police Department in the area of narcotics law enforcement. The company also planned a computer system upgrade and the legally questionable installation of a closed-circuit television system throughout the city to spot possible drug deals going down, regardless of who was making them.

"You have these kids that make a few dollars" selling drugs, says Workman, who is also a Baptist minister. "Which I don't agree with. Meanwhile, the guys who are making thousands and thousands of dollars go free. ShadowGuard wasn't going to leave anybody out. And that scared a lot of people."

Indeed, following the approval of the ShadowGuard contract, threatening telephone calls were made to the home of a black city council member, 69-year-old Thelma Drennan, one of three African-Americans on the five-member Hearne governing body. A week after its original approval, the council took a second vote and canceled the deal. Drennan was one of two black members to change her vote; Workman was the lone holdout. While Drennan says her reversal was based on the price of the plan, she also says she doesn't believe the threats directed toward her ever will be thoroughly investigated.

"I don't know that they will ever look into it," says Drennan, a woman with a fragile frame who admits she was frightened by the calls. "Somehow I get the feeling that they don't care if something were to happen to me. It would just be one more black person gone."

Hearne isn't the only small town in Texas where the actions of anti-drug task forces have been called into question. While those questions don't always have racial overtones, they usually have economic ones--task forces preying upon the poverty-stricken and the young. This January a grand jury in Brownwood, about 125 miles west of Fort Worth, issued 75 indictments involving 40 defendants. The indictments were the result of undercover work, code name Operation Loser, last summer by the West-Central Texas Narcotics Task Force based in Abilene.

The West-Central task force covers a wider area than the South Central task force. Its budget is also larger. According to figures obtained under the Texas open records law, West-Central had a combined budget for fiscal years 1999 and 2000 of just over $1 million. In that same period, the task force filed 433 charges, at a cost of more than $2,300 per case. Some of the busts were significant; last year the task force seized hundreds of pounds of marijuana. But that doesn't tell the complete story. Some of the arrests during 1999 and 2000 were not even drug-related. The arrest record includes suspects busted for Department of Public Safety warrants, carrying large amounts of money, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, car theft, reckless driving, failure to render aid, no driver's license or insurance and public intoxication. On two occasions, one agent listed the offense as "pending."

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