Pubdate: Mon, 04 Feb 2002
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2002 Austin American-Statesman
Author:  Jonathan Osborne


The past 12 months have been rough for Travis County Sheriff Margo 
Frasier's Capital Area Narcotics Task Force.

A deputy and an unarmed bystander were killed in separate raids, a civil 
rights lawsuit involving a mistaken marijuana bust is pending in federal 
court, and three of the county's major partners have dropped out of the 
force. But the clouds are not isolated over the task force based in Travis 
County. There are 48 other federally financed, multicounty narcotics teams 
in the state, some of which have garnered a reckless cowboy reputation 
among critics and lawmakers.

Aside from arrest and seizure statistics they are required to submit to the 
state, the task forces until this month operated with little oversight. 
Gov. Rick Perry has offered a solution that's getting mixed reviews. To 
rope in the special operation teams, Perry has tucked them under the 
blanket of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

With the shift, which took effect Jan. 9, the outfits now report directly 
to a state narcotics captain, who makes sure each task force is following 
the same policies and using the same tactics.

The Department of Public Safety can hold teams accountable for mistakes by 
urging the governor to strip their funding. It also can prevent officers 
with checkered pasts from jumping unnoticed from one state task force to 
another by keeping work history files on every task force member. The DPS 
"will be our eyes and ears," said Jay Kimbrough, the executive director 
Perry hired in July to oversee the Texas Narcotics Control Program. "It 
will be a quantum leap forward. Task forces have never had the oversight 
that they now have."

Longstanding critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union -- which 
has pushed legislation and filed one lawsuit and a half-dozen petitions 
involving regional task forces -- are keeping a wait-and-see attitude. "I'm 
not prepared to say it's not going to work," said Will Harrell, executive 
director of the ACLU's Texas chapter. "Only time will tell whether it's a 
facade or if it's genuine oversight."

State Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, a former Travis County sheriff, is less 
hopeful. "DPS is generally a very good agency, and they do have a history 
of integrity, but that is a task they are not up for," he said. "I don't 
always agree with the ACLU, but they have a good reason to be concerned 
about this. I am." 3 incidents, 3 departures A federally financed task 
force has existed in Central Texas since the 1980s, but Travis County 
hasn't always been part of it. When Keel became sheriff in 1992, he pulled 
his office out of the regional effort. "It did some good work, but it had 
problems throughout its history," Keel said. Those troubles included poorly 
trained and sometimes corrupt officers, Keel said. And because task force 
members technically work for a particular county and not the task force 
commander, there were serious discipline and oversight problems, he said.

"It is a flawed approach, and it has had poor results, mediocre statistics 
at best, and it has been rife with corruption," he said. "In my opinion, 
that type of unprofessionalism led to what has occurred recently. (Travis 
County) should have never gotten back into that."

The modern version of the Capital Area Narcotics Task Force started in 1998 
as a six-county effort that included deputies from Travis, Williamson, 
Bastrop, Lee, Fayette and Caldwell counties. Travis County took the helm of 
the task force -- and its now $606,300 grant -- from Williamson County in 
January 2000.

Frasier said last year's deaths, including the shooting of Deputy Keith 
Ruiz during a drug raid, weren't caused by unprofes-sionalism. "It just has 
to do with the tough job of enforcing the narcotics laws," Frasier said. 
"One of the things that people need to realize is the reason you wind up 
going into someone's home for a drug raid is that's where they're 
manufacturing and keeping the drugs. If that's where the narcotics are, and 
a court has authorized you to go and get them, that's where, unfortunately, 
you have to go."

In the past 12 months, Lee, Williamson and Bastrop counties have all left 
the task force for various reasons. But their departures have coincided 
with several turbulent events: * Ruiz was shot and killed while trying to 
break down the door of Edwin Delamora's Del Valle mobile home Feb. 15, 
2001. Delamora, 21, said he thought the officers outside were burglars. He 
is charged with capital murder in Ruiz's death.

* Task force officers were accused of mistaking ragweed for marijuana in 
May when they raided a Spicewood home and held residents at gunpoint as 
they ransacked the property and kicked the homeowner's dog, according to a 
federal civil rights lawsuit filed Jan. 24. Frasier, who would not discuss 
details because of the litigation, said the raid didn't happen the way it's 
described in court documents.

* In December, a task force member shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old, 
Tony Martinez, during a raid on a different mobile home in Del Valle. 
Martinez was not the target of that raid.

Lee County Sheriff Joe Goodson said he was forced to drop out early in 2001 
because the cities in his county didn't want to participate. The police 
chief in every city in a county must sign a cooperative agreement. 
Williamson officials, who left in November, said they dropped out to join 
the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's task force. Bastrop, which left 
in January, was the last to go. County Sheriff Richard Hernandez said he 
didn't withdraw because of Martinez's death or the other incidents. He said 
the task force -- and particularly the two deputies he had committed to the 
team -- weren't working enough in his county. "My understanding was that 
they were supposed to let these guys work in their counties, instead of 
taking them everywhere else," Hernandez said. "We weren't getting nearly 
what I wanted for our money's worth." Keel said that problem had surfaced 

"Too often, those task forces were just going where the crimes were," he 
said. Kimbrough said that's not how the program is supposed to work. Drug 
dealers typically don't think about county and city boundaries, he said. 
That's why the grants are designed to promote cooperation among the 
different jurisdictions, which should share the task force's resources. 
"It's not just a task force to augment the sheriff's department or a police 
department," Kimbrough said.

In 2000 and 2001, 208 of the 417 Capital Area Narcotics Task Force 
investigations took place in Travis County. But Frasier said the federal 
government didn't take into account the size of Texas counties -- and the 
number of different jurisdictions within those counties -- when it created 
the grants.

"When they passed the laws, they were thinking of counties in other states 
where if they're 200 square miles, they're huge," Frasier said. "Travis is 
over 1,000 square miles."

Regardless, she said, Travis County's drug problems flow into the 
surrounding areas.

"The reality of it is that the work that we do is supporting not only the 
cities in Travis County, but . . . all the counties that surround Travis 
County," she said. "We're the hub of this wheel here." Overcoming images 
Federal money to wage local law enforcement's drug war dates back to 
President Ronald Reagan.

In Texas and other states, dollars from Washington led to the formation of 
task forces, typically made up of at least two counties. Funding has 
steadily increased over the past 20 years, and the U.S. Department of 
Justice has slated more than $29.5 million in 2002 for Texas. Each task 
force must put up a 25 percent match. That money can be paid with assets 
seized during drug operations, essentially making the forces 
self-sustaining and, in some critics' opinions, self-perpetuating machines. 
"The more arrests that these regional narcotics task forces come up with, 
the more money they are guaranteed the next year," Harrell said. That's one 
image the governor's office wants to shake. "The emphasis on numbers is 
going to change dramatically," Kimbrough said. "We're not working by quotas 
here; we're working on quality. We will be addressing those past perceptions."

 From June 2000 through May 2001, the Capital Area Narcotics Task Force 
filed 131 felony charges and seized $2,826,123 in narcotics and $223,497 in 
cash assets. The numbers have been lower since last June: 81 felony cases 
have yielded $563,584 in seized narcotics and $37,729 in seized assets. 
Frasier said numbers and dollar signs aren't her goal. "My view of why you 
work narcotics is to try to keep the next generation of children from 
winding up in prison because of drugs," she said. "There are certain law 
enforcement agencies (where) the forfeiture laws are what drives policy. 
That doesn't drive ours."

Whatever drives it, the unchecked methods of the Panhandle Regional 
Narcotics Task Force drew the attention of the ACLU in 1999, when the work 
of one undercover officer with a questionable past was responsible for the 
arrests of 30 percent of the city of Tulia's African American male population.

Since then, the ACLU has found eight other small Texas towns where, Harrell 
said, minorities and poorer neighborhoods have been targeted by regional 
task forces, including a similar undercover drug operation in the East 
Texas town of Hearne in 2000, where 38 blacks and no whites were charged. 
The ACLU is encouraged that Perry's office has established some oversight, 
but the state has turned the other cheek on past indiscretions, Harrell 
said. "Why can't we talk about the past damage that has been done?" he 
said. "It can be resolved if we address it."

Keel said any lingering questions about integrity and tactics cast a dark 
shadow on all law enforcement.

"And there are legitimate questions about integrity and tactics when it 
comes to these task forces, and there have been for many years," Keel said. 
Frasier, however, said the cases in Hearne and Tulia were isolated horror 
stories. The Capital Area Narcotics Task Force, she said, adheres to the 
highest standards, and there are no policies in the Department of Public 
Safety guidebook that the group doesn't follow, she said. Kimbrough sees it 
this way: "The vast majority of task forces are very sophisticated and do 
an excellent job. We just want everybody to be on the same page."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom