Pubdate: Sat,  6 Apr 2002
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2002 Austin American-Statesman
Author: Eileen E. Flynn


Sheriff Says Officers Can Work Better Outside Of Shrinking Group

With four of its five partners abandoning a Travis County-led anti-drug 
coalition, Sheriff Margo Frasier has been forced to pull out of the Capital 
Area Narcotics Task Force - a dwindling consortium of Central Texas 
agencies involved in two deadly drug raids in little more than a year.

Frasier said Friday that despite the loss of her partners, she already had 
made up her mind to yank her officers from the troubled unit that was never 
"as successful as it could have been."

A state official said Frasier had no choice.

The county's withdrawal means that just more than $600,000 that would 
largely have been spent fighting drug trafficking in Travis County now will 
be spent on anti-drug efforts in surrounding rural counties and for 
substance abuse programs in Travis County.

The Travis County sheriff's office had led the six-county group since 
January 2000. Of the 417 task force operations conducted in 2000 and 2001, 
208 of them were in Travis County. From June 2000 through May 2001, the 
task force filed 131 felony charges and seized about $2.8 million in 
narcotics and more than $223,000 in cash assets. The numbers dropped from 
June 2001 through the rest of the year, with 81 felony cases yielding 
around $565,000 in narcotics and $37,729 in seized assets.

"I just felt it would make for better supervision and control if we just 
deal with the issues in Travis County and not try to solve the problems in 
other places," Frasier said. "I think we operated it as efficiently as we 
could. The problem is it's just too large a geographical area with too few 

Jay Kimbrough, director of the governor's criminal justice division, said 
Travis County's withdrawal was inevitable because officials in Caldwell 
County, one of the three remaining participants in the task force, had 
recently indicated that they wanted to collaborate on narcotics enforcement 
with other rural counties. The criminal justice division combines state and 
federal money to support more than 40 regional anti-drug coalitions around 
the state.

Caldwell's departure would have brought an end to the Central Texas task 
force because the only counties that would have remained - Travis and 
Fayette - are not contiguous, and the state's rules will not fund a 
single-county enforcement team. Fayette County Sheriff Rick Vandel could 
not be reached for comment Friday.

In January, Bastrop County Sheriff Richard Hernandez announced his 
withdrawal, saying that two deputies he had on the team were not spending 
enough time in his county

"We weren't getting nearly what I wanted for our money's worth," he said.

In 2001, Williamson and Lee counties left the task force.

Kimbrough said it's understandable that sheriffs would not want to devote 
personnel to an operation primarily conducted in another county.

"I think what happens is the rural communities ultimately recognize that 
their issues and needs are somewhat different from the major metropolitan 
areas," he said. "Coordination for them is a much more complex issue than 
it is for the people in the urban areas."

In February, Frasier said a large share of task force operations were 
conducted in Travis County because it was the largest of the group and is a 
hub of drug trafficking in Central Texas.

Over the past 14 months, the task force has been embroiled in controversy 
and tragedy. The deaths of Travis County sheriff's Deputy Keith Ruiz, who 
was shot during a raid in Del Valle in February 2001, and 19-year-old Tony 
Martinez, killed by a deputy during a raid in December, sparked public 
outcry over the aggressive SWAT team methods. Last May, Travis County 
deputies raided a Spicewood home and were later accused in a civil rights 
lawsuit of mistaking ragweed for marijuana and holding residents at gunpoint.

Frasier said those incidents, while they made officials reassess their 
methods, did not force the end of the task force. "I don't think the 
participation in the task force was the reason for either one of those 
tragedies," she said. "What it said to me was, this is an area where I 
really want supervisors to not be spread thin."

State Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, a former Travis County sheriff, lauded 
Frasier's decision. "I think it is a good development that this task force 
has collapsed under its own weight," he said.

It was a decision Keel himself made almost immediately after becoming 
sheriff in 1992. At that time, he said, the county had outgrown its place 
in a regional unit, which was created to provide enforcement in rural 
areas. Keel also questioned the unit's effectiveness and professionalism 
and found that collaborating with Austin Police Department's narcotics 
division was more productive.

"(The sheriff's office) should try to re-establish a joint narcotics unit 
with (Austin police)," Keel said. "In my opinion, it was a mistake for the 
sheriff's office . . . to forego that joint program and instead get back 
into a problem program."

Frasier said her agency works closely with police departments around the 

Over the past year, Travis County residents have complained to the county 
Commissioners Court and called for an end to SWAT teams and aggressive drug 
raids. Some showed up at Tuesday meetings to voice outrage. Others sent 
postcards. County Judge Sam Biscoe said he received about 100 cards with 
the same message.

"They didn't believe county money should be spent to support projects such 
as those SWAT teams initiatives," he said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth