Five years after 15% of the black population of small-town Tulia, Texas, was rolled-up in a cocaine bust conducted by a rogue lawman working for Texas drug task force, the reverberations from those arrests have arrived on Capitol Hill. After years of a harsh national spotlight focused on the strange workings of justice in the Texas panhandle town, where now disgraced narc Tom Coleman made cases based on nothing but his own word, Tulia became a national symbol of drug war law enforcement run amok and brought into stark relief the workings of the more than 700 federally-funded regional anti-drug task forces.
Now, revulsion with the excesses of the task forces has manifested itself with a bill introduced Wednesday that could cut off hundreds of millions of dollars annually in federal funding for the task forces.
In a program dating back to 1988, the Byrne grant program, named for Edward Byrne, a New York City police officer killed in the line of duty that year, anti-drug task forces around the county receive an average of $500 million a year in federal funds, according to the Justice Department. Under the federal formula, localities kick in one dollar for every three the feds contribute. The often loosely supervised task forces, with members of each drawn from various state and local agencies, have repeatedly misbehaved across the country, with investigations into task force abuses going on in at least nine states at the end of last year. Just last month, another Texas task force settled out of court a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of 27 black men arrested in Hearne, Texas.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. A 2002 report from the ACLU of Texas found at least 17 scandals involving the Byrne-funded task forces, including cases of falsifying government records, witness tampering, fabricating evidence, stealing drugs from evidence lockers, selling drugs to children, large-scale racial profiling, sexual harassment, and other abuses of official capacity. Scandals elsewhere include the misuse of millions of dollars in federal grant money in Kentucky and Massachusetts, false convictions based on police perjury in Missouri, and making deals with drug offenders to drop or lower their charges in exchange for money or vehicles in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), with cosponsors John Conyers (D-MI), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Donald Payne (D-NJ), and Edolphus Towns (D-NY), the "No More Tulias: Drug Law Enforcement Evidentiary Standards Improvement Act of 2005" is designed to force states to tighten controls over the task forces or lose the Byrne funds for them.
In particular, the bill would bar states from spending money on the regional task forces unless the state passes a law preventing people from being convicted of drug offenses when the only evidence against them is the uncorroborated testimony of a law enforcement officer or informant. Byrne grant money would still be available for other, non-law enforcement activities, such as drug treatment and domestic violence prevention.
"I'm very pleased with this development," said Alan Bean of Friends of Justice, a Tulia-based group that emerged in the wake of the 2000 bust there and proved instrumental, along with groups such as the William Moses Kunstler Fund and the ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project, in winning justice for those falsely convicted and imprisoned. "We had been hoping something like this would happen, especially since we were able to get a similar bill passed in Texas in 2001," he told DRCNet.
Bean has every right to be pleased. He has pushed for federal reforms similar to those in the Lone Star state for years, taking freed Tulia prisoners to Washington to meet with the congressional black caucus and collaring Rep. Lee at the 2003 Breaking the Chains conference in Houston. "I talked to her for about 10 minutes about it, and I think that was her first real exposure to it," he said.
"Until now, these drug task forces around the country haven't had to answer to anyone," said Jesselyn McCurdy, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. "As a result of this lack of state and federal oversight, they've been at the center of the some of the country's most egregious law enforcement abuse scandals. This legislation would put checks and balances on their unfettered power and make sure citizens aren't rounded up based on uncorroborated testimony, or their race. The law enforcement agents involved in these scandals weren't just a few bad apples," McCurdy said. "The lack of checks and balances, and corroboration of testimony, set the stage for abuse. This legislation is an important step in eliminating the racial profiling, corruption and lack of oversight that lets scandals like Tulia exist."
"This is something we've needed for a long time: a law enforcement reform bill," said Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, an anti-prohibitionist group working to free prisoners of the war on drugs. "We have a police problem in this country, and with the introduction of this bill we are beginning to address it," she told DRCNet. "We are beginning the long overdue discussion of the way police investigate drug crimes, or is it the way police create drug crimes? With these task forces and their stings, handing out cash and drugs, they take an entrepreneurial person in a capitalist society and set him up, and then when he gets big enough, they bust him as kingpin," she said.
"There is a lot of talk about sentencing reform, but that is the back end," Callahan continued. "What people don't realize is that sentencing begins at the time of investigation, when the police find a guy selling drugs and then let him continue until he reaches the sentencing level they want. We need reform on the front end, we need reforms in the way the police operate, and this bill begins to do that."
"Congress needs to pass Representative Jackson Lee's bill in order to prevent more innocent people from going to jail," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Liberals and conservatives agree, the federal Byrne grant program is doing more harm than good."
Both the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance are among the dozens of civil rights, civil liberties, religious, and drug and legal reform groups that have endorsed the bill, and while the sponsors of the new federal legislation are all Democrats, the campaign to rein in the task forces has won support from Christian conservatives, especially in Texas, where right-leaning state legislators allied themselves with the Texas ACLU and the NAACP to successfully win passage of a bill outlawing drug convictions based solely on the testimony of an informant.
Nationally, five leading conservative groups -- American Conservative Union, Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, Citizens against Government Waste, and National Taxpayers Union -- have issued a sign-on letter calling on Congress to urge the Bush administration to completely de-fund the Byrne grant program because it "has proved to be an ineffective and inefficient use of resources."
But while law enforcement and congressional drug warriors such as Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) are squealing like stuck pigs over the budget proposal and will probably be able to get the funding restored, the Tulia bill opens a new line of attack of funding of the roving task forces.
Now, bill supporters are attempting to put pressure on Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) to hold hearings on the bill this year.
Two years ago, in the face of withering columns on Tulia by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, Sensenbrenner pledged to hold hearings on the issue of task force abuses. That hasn't happened yet, and the coalition of groups supporting the bill is calling Sensenbrenner on it. "Two years ago, you pledged to hold a formal Judiciary Committee hearing on the causes of the abuses in Tulia," the groups wrote in a letter to the congressman. "Your spokesperson at the time pledged that you would initiate "active and aggressive oversight of the federal task force" responsible for hiring the rogue cop in Tulia. The introduction of this bill represents the perfect opportunity for the expeditious scheduling of the promised Judiciary Committee hearing."
That would be nice, said Bean. "When I got into this fight, the issue of corroboration was key. If my kid were accused of selling drugs, I would want more evidence than some guy's word," said Bean. "It's fundamentally unfair to prosecute people based on evidence so shoddy. Seeing people convicted on such flimsy evidence provided my first insight into what's wrong with the drug war. It was just such a fundamental injustice. And it's not just Tulia," said Bean. "The only unusual thing about Tulia is we had a spectacularly sleazy cop and so many black people arrested. A big bust in a small town. But what went on there is pretty much business as usual all across the country."
Read the Full Bill Text (Draft, PDF Format)
Take Action Now! to support this bill
Read Media about Drug Task Forces and this bill
May 25, 2005
Dear Chairman Sensenbrenner:
We, the undersigned, represent 50 organizations who write in support of the "No More Tulia's: Drug Law Enforcement Evidentiary Standards Improvement Act of 2005," introduced on May 25, 2005 by Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee. This bill will provide needed oversight and accountability of the millions of federal dollars distributed to state and local law enforcement agencies to fight the drug war. This legislation will help to minimize scandals and injustices by increasing the evidentiary standard required to convict a person for a drug offense and requiring screening of law enforcement officers or others acting under color of law participating in drug task forces.
One of the better known federally-funded drug task force scandals occurred in Tulia, Texas several years ago, when dozens of African American residents were arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to decades in prison based on the uncorroborated testimony of a federally-funded undercover officer who has since been convicted of perjury. The Tulia residents who were wrongly convicted based on the officer's false testimony have since been pardoned, but evidence reveals that what occurred in Tulia was not an isolated incident but the tip of the iceberg-all because of unfettered federal funding of narcotics task forces nationwide.
A 2002 report by the ACLU of Texas identified seventeen scandals involving Byrne-funded anti-drug task forces in Texas, including cases of falsifying government records, witness tampering, fabricating evidence, stealing drugs from evidence lockers, selling drugs to children, large-scale racial profiling, sexual harassment, and other abuses of official capacity. Byrne-related scandals have grown so prolific that the traditionally conservative Texas legislature recently passed several reforms in response to them, including outlawing racial profiling and changing Texas law to prohibit people from being convicted of drug offenses based solely on the word of an undercover informant.
Texas is not the only state suffering from Byrne-funded law enforcement scandals. Recent scandals in other states include the misuse of millions of dollars in federal grant money in Kentucky and Massachusetts, false convictions based on police perjury in Missouri, and making deals with drug offenders to drop or lower their charges in exchange for money or vehicles in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin. A 2001 study by the Government Accountability Office found that the federal government fails to adequately monitor the grant program and hold grantees accountable.
Two years ago, you pledged to hold a formal Judiciary Committee hearing on the causes of the abuses in Tulia. Your spokesperson at the time pledged that you would initiate "active and aggressive oversight of the federal task force" responsible for hiring the rogue cop in Tulia. The introduction of this bill represents the perfect opportunity for the expeditious scheduling of the promised Judiciary Committee hearing.
Many regional anti-drug task forces receive up to 75 percent of their funding from the federal Byrne grant program. The lack of meaningful federal oversight over these grants results in the proliferation of corruption and abuse. As expressed in the bill's findings,
"Byrne grants should be prohibited for States that do not exercise effective control over these task forces. At a bare minimum no State that fails to prohibit criminal convictions based solely on the testimony of a law enforcement officer or informant should receive a Byrne grant. Corroborative evidence should always be required for such convictions to be ordered."
We urge you to follow-up on your commitment two years ago to scrutinize this issue by expeditiously scheduling a full Judiciary Committee hearing on the "No More Tulia's" bill. Thank you for your attention to this matter and we look forward to your response.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.