Pubdate: Mon, 24 May 2004
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2004 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst
Author: Steve McVicker
Cited: American Civil Liberties Union of Texas
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


State Group's Report Says Task Forces Target Minorities

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

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

"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.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin