Dallas police frame and deport Hispanics

By Mark Harrison, November Coalition

The Dallas Police Department arrested 39 Hispanic people for possession and distribution of a white, chalky substance that field-tested positive for cocaine. Two undercover cops and a paid informant reported that drugs had been sold or shown to them, which led to the arrests. But in lab tests that police hoped would not be conducted, it was determined the "drugs" were powdered wallboard gypsum. Prior to this, however, with plasterboard in the evidence room, the prosecution went forward in 59 cases against dark-skinned "cocaine" dealers whose defense testimony was no match for the calculated lies of the police and their informant.

Amel Santos, 26, immigrated illegally to the U.S. when he was 11. He was working as a mechanic in his family's shop before being swept up in the dragnet that targeted mostly Mexican nationals last year. Santos was a productive member of his community in a Dallas neighborhood, supporting himself and family with honest work. Santos was not a criminal; so police decided to make him one. The informant simply claimed that Santos had showed cocaine to him, which is good enough for the Texas anti-drug task force to get a search warrant.

Sure enough, at Mr. Santos' place of business, police found more gypsum in a pickup truck parked outside the garage. Mr. Santos was arrested last July on a charge of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance over 400 grams - of powdered wallboard - and was deported to Mexico. Mr. Santos denies ever possessing, using or selling cocaine and says he would like to return to the U.S., but defense attorney Cynthia Barbare is not hopeful. In behalf of her clients, Barbare ordered the evidence tested and believes all of the defendants were targeted by police for deportation, as does the ACLU of Texas which is monitoring the cases.

Racial profiling is one of the most effective Bill of Rights-busting weapons in the illegal arsenal of "law" enforcement. Another is the confidential informant who, for freedom, money and drugs, lies under oath with the full knowledge of prosecutors and police - and often under their direction.

The Dallas police not only got their man, but they got many men who were selected by race to possess counterfeit drugs. Trace amounts of cocaine were found in some of the evidence, but powdered dry wall was curiously the defendants' "drug" of choice. The district attorney's office is working to dismiss all 59 cases against these victims of racial profiling and police corruption - but many have already been deported.

The undercover police, known as Bruiser and Cruiser, who battled the scourge of plasterboard in Dallas have been placed on administrative leave, which means if they weren't cops they'd be in jail. The gypsum informant was paid $200,000 of public money for his services. And, as a crucial witness in a case that publicizes gross police corruption, common in anti-drug task forces everywhere, the police made sure that the snitch was deported to Mexico, too, never to testify again. Seventy cases dating back to 1999 involving the informant are being reviewed, said Police Chief Terrell Bolton in an AP report, which means hundreds more lives have been added to the hundreds of thousands shattered by the drug war.

Backlash emerges as Texas Drug Task Forces run amok

Texas anti-drug task forces have happily rampaged across the Lone Star State for more than a decade, but their continuing excesses and abuses are arousing increasingly hostile responses from victims and civil rights advocates. The Panhandle Area Drug Task Force is one of numerous federally seeded, multi-jurisdiction law enforcement organizations that pays its expenses partly with assets seized from its victims.

The Task Force gained national infamy when it participated in the widely criticized drug raids in Tulia in 1999, but it is not the only drug task force to come under fire. In an attempt to quiet the rising clamor, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced in January that he was moving to bring all drug task forces in the state under the watchful eye of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).

That won't be enough for Spicewood resident Sandra Smith, 56, who was held at gunpoint by Capital Area Narcotics Task Force officers last May when they raided her home after airborne surveillance mistakenly identified ragweed, growing at the back of her rural lot, as marijuana. Operating without a search warrant, the SWAT-style raiders helicoptered in and ransacked her property, but found no drugs. And they kicked her old dog, too, she claimed. Now, she and other residents of the home outside Austin are suing Travis County, the task force, and the individual officers involved. Each plaintiff is seeking $35,000 in damages from each respondent for violating civil rights.

"This is the most terrifying thing that even happened to me in my life," Smith told the Austin American-Statesman. "I've never been in trouble with the law. I don't even smoke cigarettes."

"That raid was something worthy of the old secret police in the Soviet Union," said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Liberties Project handling the lawsuit. "What they did was pathetic, but also dangerous. These cops thought these people had some pot, so instead of getting a warrant, which would be standard police-practice, they just jump in with this unjustifiable array of force," he told DRCNet. "And when they figure out they're wrong, they still hold the people at gunpoint while they ransack the house looking for some sign of wrongdoing, and when they can't find anything, they leave without a word of apology."

The lawsuit charges the task force with violating Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure and with using excessive force, and demands that Smith's name be removed from a state drug suspect database. "They totally botch this raid, they violate her Fourth Amendment rights, and then they put her in the computer as a narcotics offender," said Harrington. "It isn't right. If she gets stopped for a traffic violation, they'll search her now. It's a law enforcement zoo."

The problem of out-of-control drug enforcement in general, and the task forces in particular, are as big as the state of Texas, as this admittedly partial list of task force blunders, botches, and crimes from recent years makes clear:

  • May 1999: Members of the Hays County Narcotics Task Force shot and killed 25-year-old Alexander Windle in a confrontation during a predawn raid. Windle had twice sold half-ounces of marijuana to a task force informant. That informant, Roy Parrish, a 48-year-old multiple felon, caused the task force to drop numerous cases after it was revealed that he was plying area teenagers with drugs and alcohol.
  • July 1999: Based on reports from a shady undercover officer paid for by the Panhandle Area Narcotics Task Force, authorities in Tulia arrested 41 persons, 35 of them black, decimating the town's black community and blasting the town into the national spotlight.
  • November 2000: The South Central Narcotics Task Force arrested 28 people in Hearne, all of them black, for small-time drug sales. Within a few months, local authorities had dropped charges against 17 people after finding that their informant had fabricated evidence. Eleven people had already pleaded guilty.
  • December 2000: Former Maverick County Narcotics Task Force member Wilbur Honeycutt was sentenced to 15 years in prison for shooting a Mexican immigrant in the back. Honeycutt shot and paralyzed Monje Ortiz as he fled back toward Mexico after being caught attempting to cross into the United States.
  • February 2001: The Capital Area Narcotics Task Force lost Deputy Keith Ruiz, shot and killed during a plain-clothes drug raid. The target of the raid said he thought the police were burglars.
  • April 2001: San Antonio prosecutors dropped at least 33 drug cases after four San Antonio police officers were arrested in an FBI sting. The officers had believed they were providing protection for cocaine traffickers. Another three cases were dropped after a suburban Balcones Heights police officer, John Beauford, was indicted in a similar but unrelated FBI sting. Beauford was former supervisor of the Alamo Area Narcotics Task Force.
  • June 2001: The director of the Texas Narcotics Control Program, which allocates federal funds to the various task forces, was demoted after an audit finds $44,000 in questionable expenses. Robert J. Bodisch Sr. plied local law enforcement officials with golf outings, plaques and alcohol at various conferences.
  • September 2001: The 81st Judicial District Narcotics Task Force in Wilson County lost officer Albert J. Villarreal of Poteet after he was indicted and jailed for filing false reports, fabricating evidence and abusing his position. The indictment alleged that Villarreal trumped up drug charges against 15 people.
  • October 2001: The Texas Observer published a blistering expose of the Chambers County Narcotics Task force between Houston and Beaumont, which it reported as having a "well-earned reputation for greed, sloth, inefficiency and corruption." The Observer's three-month investigation of the task force revealed "that task forces like the CCNTF amass impressive statistics by focusing the majority of their efforts on street-level dealers, all but ignoring dealers further up the food chain." The Observer's description of task force internal case logs described its targets as "row after row and page after page of black defendants, most of them street-level crack dealers."
  • November 2001: The Denton/Collins County Task Force had at least six members facing criminal or disciplinary investigations endangering potential prosecutions. Denton County prosecutors cited problems with the task force while announcing they were dropping cocaine possession charges against former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin.
  • December 2001: The Capital Area Narcotics Task Force shot and killed19-year-old Antonio Martinez as he lay sleeping on the couch of a home being raided. The unarmed Martinez was not the raid's target
  • January 2002: Dallas County prosecutors were working to dismiss 59 large-scale drug cases after it turned out that the drugs involved were not drugs at all but pulverized sheetrock. All of the cases involved two Dallas police detectives and a confidential informant who was paid $200,000 for his efforts. Thirty-nine people, mostly Mexican immigrants, were arrested. Three remain in custody, while others were deported. Many accepted plea bargains. The FBI is now investigating.

The sheetrock scandal is only the latest in a tawdry series of Dallas narcotics police corruption scandals that have enveloped the department for the last decade, beginning with two officers nicknamed "Bruiser" and "Cruiser," who made an extracurricular living shaking down drug dealers in the early 1990s. (See related story on page 1)

"You don't need these kinds of units," said Harrington. "They need to abolish these task forces all together. They are structured so you can't avoid this sort of abuse. What in heaven's name was the point in creating all these regional task forces?"
The short answer is money. Under a Reagan-era Department of Justice program, the federal government provides hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the states to disburse in grants to regional anti-drug task forces. In Texas alone, around 700 law enforcement officers work for various task forces, at a cost of $31 million in federal funds this fiscal year.

To qualify for federal funds, the task forces must come up with a 25% match for whatever federal funds they receive, and therein lies a problem. Because local funding can be 'iffy,' the task forces have become self-sustaining, primarily by seizing cash and goods from the people they arrest. Under Texas law, arresting agencies are allowed to keep all assets seized.

The funding imperative also distorts task force priorities in other ways. Making repeated arrests of small-time crack dealers may not do anything to reduce substance abuse, but it's a fine way of creating impressive statistics used to garner a bigger share of task force grants. "It's all about the numbers," Chambers County defense attorney Ed Lieck told the Observer. "More numbers mean more money. I've been doing this for ten years, and law enforcement is about the money. Anybody who tells you different is lying to you," he said.

"I think that's the key to this whole problem," said Will Harrell, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. "It's numbers by any means, and nobody is doing an assessment of the methods used," he told the Observer. "Statistics from small-time crack busts, income from highway stops, it's a winning formula."

It's not a formula that pleases former Travis County Sheriff and current state Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin). "There are legitimate questions about integrity and tactics when it comes to these task forces, and there have been for many years," Keel told the Austin American-Statesman. "I don't always agree with the ACLU, but they have good reason to be concerned about this. It is a flawed approach, and it has had poor results, mediocre statistics at best, and it has been rife with corruption."

While Gov. Perry has belatedly attempted to bring his cowboy cops under the control of the Texas Narcotics Control Board, critics have charged it isn't enough. "I'm not prepared to say it's going to work," said Harrell. "Only time will tell if it is a facade or if it's genuine oversight."

That's not enough for Harrington. "These things need to be abolished," he told DRCNet. "They are ridiculous and dangerous. They botch things up, they're unprofessional, and they're violating peoples' rights with serious consequences."
There is something people can do, he said. "There is growing grassroots pressure to de-fund and de-legitimize these task forces. These things are funded at the county level, so if people agitate at the county level that can be very effective. If the counties don't ask for the federal money, that's the end of it."

Source: DRCNet's The Week Online

The Razor Wire is a publication of The November Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates drug law reform. Contact information: moreinfo@november.org
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