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 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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