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Federal Bill Introduced to Rein in Anti-Drug Task Forces - Media Coverage

May 27, 2005 - The Christian Science Monitor (Nationwide)

Signs Of Drug-War Shift

Efforts To End A Grant Program Could Indicate A Change In The Administration's Approach.

By Kris Axtman, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HOUSTON - Evidence is beginning to build that the approach to the war on drugs in the United States could be changing - by shifting attention away from small-time drug dealers and individual users toward major drug traffickers.

The nation's drug czar, for one, has alluded to changes in thinking. "Break the business," said John Walters at a congressional hearing earlier this year. "Don't break generation after generation [of poor, minority young men], is what we're going for."

Another sign of a shift involves the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, which since 1988 has earmarked federal money for local communities to use in the war on drugs. Many have said the program's structure has been flawed since its inception, and now, President Bush is proposing the elimination of the program by next year - though this budget cut is still being fought in Congress.

Short of the program's elimination, at least two moves are afoot to address Byrne's problems. The Texas Legislature has passed a bill that places strict limits on the drug task forces created under the program. And Sheila Jackson-Lee (D) of Texas introduced a bill this week in the US House of Representatives that would prohibit states from spending Byrne grant money on drug task forces unless they adopt laws that prevent people from being convicted solely on the word of an informant or law-enforcement officer.

In all, these steps could portend larger changes in the war on drugs. "For so long, the federal government has focused on arresting a lot of low-level drug offenders instead of on stopping drugs from coming into the country or on terrorism," says Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington. "But I think they are getting smarter and realizing that they can't arrest their way out of it."

Indeed, many contend that the current allocation of resources has not been effective. Although prisons around the country are bulging under 1.5 million drug arrests per year, the price of drugs has never been lower, and the purity has never been higher.

In discussing his 2006 budget before a House subcommittee in February, Mr. Walters touched on those concerns. "The issue is how do we best reduce the supply of drugs in the United States at the national and at the local and regional levels," he said, concluding that unless there is a shift in the fundamental approach, "you are chasing primarily small people, putting them in jail, year after year, generation after generation."

What the Bush administration is realizing, especially after Sept. 11, is that federal efforts should be reprioritized and funding better spent, say analysts.

"There is a growing philosophical shift that the federal government shouldn't fund the daily operating expenses of local law enforcement," says David Muhlhausen, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "They had gotten into paying officers' salaries that local communities should be paying for, and now they realize they need to focus their efforts in more urgent areas like homeland security and defense."

In 2002, Dr. Muhlhausen did a study of the Byrne grant program and found "no evidence that these grants work to reduce crime."

In fact, they may even contribute to it, as scandal after scandal in Texas suggests. The most notorious occurred in the Panhandle town of Tulia, when more than 40 residents were sentenced to prison after a Byrne-funded undercover officer lied in court about selling them drugs during a sting operation in 1999.

Gov. Rick Perry pardoned most of the residents after nearly four years in prison and disbanded the regional drug task force. But scandals involving Byrne grants continue to occur - especially in Texas, which pumps 90 percent of the federal money into task forces, as opposed to other states, which channel 40 percent. (The rest is spent on things like drug treatment and probationary services.)

"The structure of these task forces is so flawed that they create more problems than they solve," says Scott Henson, director of the Police Accountability Project for the ACLU of Texas. "They are federally funded, state managed, and locally staffed. There is no accountability."

For their part, officers in charge of the drug task forces say they are being limited by the cuts to the Byrne grant program - and at a time when their communities are being ravaged by the methamphetamine epidemic.

In Texas, for instance, the allocation went from $31.6 million in 2004 to $22.7 million in 2005, and many expect that the amount will be reduced again this year. Officers say that those cuts mean several Texas drug task forces will disband at the end of the month. The remaining 20 or so will be supervised by the state Department of Public Safety under the state bill just passed.

Muhlhausen doesn't believe that the Byrne grants will disappear this year, but rather that the $800 million program will be cut again and eventually peter out under continued pressure from the Bush administration.

"I think the administration is realizing that what is a state and local responsibility isn't good fiscal policy" at the federal level, he says. And because the Tulia incident occurred while Mr. Bush was still governor of Texas, he adds, the president is "uniquely positioned to understand how this [Byrne grant] money has been misspent."

March 25, 2005 - The Amarillo Globe-News (TX)

Bill Named After Tulia To Be Filed Today

By Greg Cunningham , Amarillo Globe-News

When Tom Coleman came to Tulia in 1998, nothing about the tiny Texas town could have indicated the prominence to which the city would one day climb.

Now, seven years later, the name Tulia is synonymous in drug-reform circles with all that is wrong with the War on Drugs, and the since-discredited operation Coleman conducted has the potential to change the way law enforcement agencies across the country fight narcotics.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, is scheduled to hold a news conference today to announce a new bill, named after Tulia, which aims to make sure that federal funds are never again used to conduct an operation like the one that happened in Tulia.

The bill, titled No More Tulias: Drug Law Enforcement Evidentiary Standards Improvement Act of 2005, aims to cut off federal funds to any multi-jurisdictional drug task force that operates in a state without evidentiary standards that could have prevented the Tulia fiasco.

Lee's office provided no comment on the bill Tuesday, but Bill Piper, who worked with Lee on the bill, had plenty to say.

Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance in New York said the bill is aimed squarely at the type of operations conducted in Tulia, where the defendants were convicted based solely on the word of an undercover agent tying them to a bag of drugs.

"What happened in Tulia made national news and cast the national spotlight on the criminal justice system," Piper said. "It's now become a symbol of what could go wrong in the War on Drugs."

Coleman, who is on probation after being convicted of lying on the stand during evidentiary hearings related to the bust, conducted the 18-month undercover investigation with no audio or video surveillance to back up his word. After allegations of theft and other improprieties surfaced in his background, nearly all the 46 defendants - most of them black - convicted on Coleman's word were pardoned and split up a $6 million settlement.

Lee's bill, which is co-sponsored by several other Democrats, would require states to have laws in place requiring more than just an agent's word for a conviction if they are to use federal law enforcement funds known as Byrne Grants to fund task forces. The bill names video or audio surveillance, fingerprints or marked money as possible corroborative evidence.

The states would also have to put procedures in place to conduct thorough background checks on undercover agents to use Byrne Grants for task forces.

The bill points to Tulia as a driving force, but also cites 17 other scandals in Texas, as well as controversies in other states.

"In recent years it has become clear that programs funded by the (Byrne Grants) have perpetuated racial disparities, corruption in law enforcement and the commission of civil rights abuses across the country," the bill reads. "This is especially the case when it comes to the program's funding of hundreds of regional anti-drug task forces."

Piper said prospects for the bill are fairly good, considering that the Byrne Grants have been under fire from both sides of the aisle in Congress. President George Bush has even moved to eliminate funding for the grants altogether. Piper said Lee is looking for more sponsors, including Republicans, and they are hopeful the bill can make it into law in the next year or two.

If the bill passes, it will come as a relief to many of those who fought against the Tulia bust from the beginning.

The Rev. Charles Kiker, a member of Friends of Justice and outspoken opponent of the bust, said it would be gratifying to see national change come out of the Tulia controversy.

"I think it would be a great thing if it could happen," he said. "I'd say it's a long shot, but getting (the bill) introduced is a good start."

March 31, 2004 - USA Today (Nationwide)

Texas Scandal Throws Doubt On Anti-Drug Task Forces

Critics See Lack Of Supervision

By Laura Parker

A 16-year-old federal program that has poured about $500 million a year into more than 750 regional anti-drug task forces is under fire from critics who say that a lack of oversight has led to wrongful convictions of citizens and theft, perjury and misuse of public funds by law enforcement officers.

The focus of many of the complaints from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union has been the scandal in Tulia, Texas, where more than 40 residents -- most of them black -- were sent to jail after an officer allegedly lied in court about selling them drugs during a sting operation in 1999.

No drugs were ever recovered during raids in the Tulia case, and the investigator, Tom Coleman, produced no physical evidence to back up his testimony. Doubts surrounding the convictions eventually led Texas Gov. Rick Perry to pardon nearly all of the defendants last year. This month, the defendants reached a $5 million settlement with officials in nearby Amarillo, the hub for the task force operations.

Under the agreement, the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, a multiagency unit that covered 26 counties, was disbanded. The task force's downfall -- along with local officials' acknowledgement that it lacked leadership -- cast a spotlight on problems in other federally funded task forces.

Investigations into possible misconduct by members of such task forces are underway in nine states. In some cases, criminal charges against people arrested in drug stings have been dismissed; in other cases, convictions have been overturned.

The situation has led the ACLU and other groups to call on Congress to either overhaul the federal grant program that provides most of the funding for the anti-drug task forces or to eliminate the program. The critics say multicounty task forces are too easily corrupted and have become ineffective.

The chief complaint against the anti-drug units -- which often involve more than two dozen law enforcement agencies -- is that no one is in charge of supervising them.

"These are nameless, faceless, roaming operations that are not subject to the ballot box or city council scrutiny," says Will Harrell, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, which has urged the Texas Legislature to disband all 45 of the task forces in that state. "The states assume no responsibility over their actions. All they are required to do is report their numbers of arrests. It's all about quantity, not quality."

In a statement about the settlement, officials in Amarillo acknowledged that "there was a void of leadership in the task force."

Anti-drug task forces operate throughout the country. They get 75% of their funding from the federal Byrne grant program and 25% from local counties. The federal program, named for Edward Byrne, a New York City police officer who was killed on duty in 1988, was created under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 to provide money to help states reduce violent crime and fight drugs.

Federal funding for the grant program has averaged $ 500 million a year, the Justice Department says. The grants are distributed to every congressional district in the country.

Supporters credit the grants with helping local law enforcement target illegal drug distribution, which has become increasingly more sophisticated and mobile. A recent study by the National Institute of Justice found that anti-drug task forces play a key role in law enforcement efforts.

The 2002 annual report of the grant program cited success in Utah, which received $ 4.5 million that year to support 16 task forces that have battled trafficking of methamphetamine. The task forces arrested more than 3,000 people that year and seized $ 2.1 million in drugs, the report said.

In Washington, the Justice Department has proposed streamlining its grant procedure by folding the Byrne program into two other grant programs. Richard Nedelkoff, director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, said in a report that the change would help correct a lack of coordination between states and local communities.

But critics say the changes would not fix what they see as the fundamental flaw in the program: a lack of oversight of law enforcement officers.

Vanita Gupta, a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which exposed the abuses in Tulia, says the changes address accounting oversights, not supervision of personnel.

"You can tweak a program, but it takes some serious reform to address the problems of Tulia," she says.

She says the way grants are awarded contributes to the potential for corruption. "A system that encourages higher numbers of arrests in order to obtain greater funds the next time around creates perverse incentives for abuse. "

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, says the panel will hold oversight hearings into the Tulia scandal in May.

The Tulia case drew national attention because almost all of the 46 people arrested in the drug sting are black. In a town of 5,000 people, those arrested made up nearly 10% of the black population.

The sting in Tulia was run by Coleman, who worked alone and unsupervised. He did not wear a recording device during any of his alleged drug purchases and conducted no video surveillance.

Coleman faces trial on perjury charges in May. He has pleaded not guilty and has declined to comment on his case.

The scandal led the Texas Legislature to pass a law that testimony from confidential informants must be corroborated with other evidence.

Jeff Blackburn, one of the lawyers who represented the defendants, calls the settlement of the lawsuit "historic" because it is one of the first times an anti-drug task force has been sued successfully.

Previous claims against task forces ran into legal roadblocks because of questions over whether the task forces, which technically are not government entities, could be sued.

"We're putting out the message that doing business as an essentially ungovernable rogue task force is a very expensive proposition for all cities and counties involved," Blackburn says.

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