Just over a year ago, the small Texas Panhandle town of Tulia made national headlines when police rounded up more than 10 percent of the city's African-Americans and jailed them on drug charges. All of the arrests and charges were based on the uncorroborated word of one officer: Deputy Tom Coleman of the Swisher County sheriff's office. Coleman was a lawman with a checkered past. He had been charged with theft in Cochran County before signing on with Swisher County, where he was working as an undercover narcotics officer. He was also known as a "gypsy cop," a sort of hired gun who bounced from one law enforcement agency to the next--usually one of the dozens of federally funded regional anti-drug task forces that have sprung up around the state since they began forming in the late 1980s.
At the time of the Tulia busts, Coleman, through his employment with the sheriff's office, was once again working for a regional anti-drug outfit, the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force. First chronicled in the Texas Observer, the arrests soon were reported by newspapers and television and radio stations across the state as well as by the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post. But the events that occurred last summer in Tulia did not happen in a vacuum. Nor was the targeting of minorities and the poor a tactic employed by only the Panhandle task force.
Instead, Tulia was just the most visible example of these problems as they relate to regional drug task forces in Texas, which last year received $31 million in federal money through a U.S. Department of Justice grant program known as the Edward Byrne Memorial Fund. By far the largest funder of these narcotics-fighting groups, the Byrne Fund has distributed billions of dollars to drug task forces across the nation.
Some of those Texas task forces--especially the ones in rural areas--are now being accused of employing their own Tulia-like tactics in dealing with the drug problems in their communities. In places such as Brady, Hearne, Caldwell, Brownwood, Chambers County and elsewhere, critics say task force members have relied on unreliable informants to make cases against small-time, street-level drug users and dealers who are nowhere close to the epicenter of the narcotics problem in Texas. Task force officials defend the program by pointing out that all illegal drugs are illegal. But civil rights activists charge that the task force system is the latest example of an enormously expensive misplaced priority in the so-called war on drugs, a war they say focuses on the poor and people of color rather than the real players in the narcotics trade.
"The fundamental problem is that you have these task forces out there operating with little or no supervision and absolutely no state or federal accountability," says Texas American Civil Liberties Union President Will Harrell. "No one is accepting responsibility, and the task forces have one motive and one motive only: to produce numbers lest they lose their funding for the next year. But no one questions how they go about their business."
It was during the presidency of Ronald Reagan that the United States declared war on drugs. In a February 1988 speech in Mexico, Reagan went so far as to proclaim that the crusade was "an untold American success story" and that illegal drug use had "already gone out of style in the United States." He could not have been more wrong, as the billions of dollars that have been spent on drugs and fighting them since prove.
Each June, the beginning of the Byrne Fund's fiscal year, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance distributes the millions in federal dollars to state agencies across the country. It is the states that send money down the line to the various task forces within their boundaries. This past June, Texas received a fresh fix of $31,636,000 earmarked for state task forces. Just like every year, the grant was sent from the federal government to the Texas Narcotics Control Program, a branch of the criminal justice division of the governor's office, which has its own current two-year budget of $176 million. One of the main tasks of the TNCP is to distribute Byrne Fund money among the state's task forces. Only multijurisdictional task forces--the ones that include peace officers from law enforcement agencies in multiple jurisdictions--are eligible for the grant money.
Federal guidelines allow for 100 percent funding of a task force, but they also encourage in-kind funding by the participating agencies. In 1994 there was a push in the Justice Department to abolish the Byrne grants program because the task forces were inefficient, redundant and bad about sharing information. According to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, then the deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Justice Programs, the Byrne grant program "was never intended to be a continual grant to the states." Townsend, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy and now lieutenant governor of Maryland, adds that the funds would continue to be available for use by the states, but that the "dollars will be focused on programs that work."