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May 24, 2004 - The Houston Chronicle (TX)

ACLU Wants Drug Squads Gone

State Group's Report Says Task Forces Target Minorities

By Steve McVicker

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Regional narcotics task forces like the one that led to the ill-fated roundup in Tulia five years ago should be disbanded and their funding used to enhance other aspects of law enforcement, according to a new report.

The 18-page "Flawed Enforcement" study by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas also charges that the task forces ignore the stated mandate of the federal agency that funds them of focusing on "violent crime and serious offenders."

Instead, the report charges, the drug squads for the most part target minorities and small-time drug users and dealers in an effort to inflate arrest numbers and perpetuate funding increases.

"These narcotics task forces have proven to be a failed experiment, and it's time to do away with them," said Will Harrell, executive director of the ACLU of Texas.

The majority of the funding for drug task forces in Texas come from federal money obtained through the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Grant Program.

Established by Congress in 1988 and administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2003 the Byrne Fund awarded more than $32 million in Texas, according to the Justice Department Web site.

Harrell believes those funds could be better spent elsewhere in law enforcement.

"For example, this money could be used to improve DNA labs and other forensic efforts," said Harrell. "And there's no better case for that in the state of Texas than the Houston (Police Department) DNA lab. To me it's a no-brainer. That money should be diverted from the (Harris County) task force to the lab."

Questions about the effectiveness and propriety of drug task forces in Texas first surfaced in July 1999 after an 18-month undercover operation by the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force that resulted in the arrest of 46 suspects -- 39 of them black-in Tulia. That was 15 percent of the town's black population, and civil rights groups called the drug busts racially motivated.

Gov. Rick Perry eventually pardoned 35 of those prosecuted. Tom Coleman, a member of the task force, is currently awaiting trial on perjury charges.

Similar questions were raised about a November 2000 drug raid by the South Central Texas Narcotics Task Force in Hearne, where 28 people-mostly blacks-were arrested on drug charges.

Charges against 17 defendants were eventually dropped after Robertson County authorities discovered the confidential informant in the case had stolen some of the drugs and money.

In November 2002, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit accusing county authorities of violating the civil rights of those arrested during the drug sting. The case is pending.

The Byrne Fund money is awarded to the various state drug task forces through the governor's office. The office did not respond to a request for a statement about the ACLU report.

Capt. Roger Clifford of the Harris County Narcotics Task Force agreed that there are "some rouge task forces that need to go away."

But he said it is unfair for the ACLU to paint all task forces with the same broad brush. The Harris County unit includes the Sheriff's Department and Houston Police Department.

"This is the largest task force in the state, and we don't do any of that stuff," said Clifford. "Our focus is toward those major cartels that are intent on bringing large shipments (of drugs) into the Houston area to be distributed throughout the United States."

The ACLU report, which was released last week, also charges that some task forces:

  • Were more likely to search blacks than whites in eight out of nine task forces that supplied sufficient data to calculate.
  • Perform searches at traffic stops much more often than regular police and sheriff's departments.

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

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