March 22, 2004 - The Dallas Morning News (TX)

Texas Needs A New Approach To Fighting The Drug Problem

By Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. Contributing to this column was Scott Henson, director of the ACLU's police accountability project

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As Halle Berry reportedly prepares for her role as a lawyer in an upcoming movie about the infamous Tulia drug sting case and as dozens of wrongfully convicted Tulians, now pardoned by the governor, plan how to spend their winnings from a legal settlement, the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force appears to be reaching the end of its era.

As part of a $5 million settlement, the city of Amarillo pulled out as the sponsoring agency of the task force, which perpetrated the 1999 Tulia drug sting, where 39 people were falsely convicted on the word of a lying undercover cop. Gov. Rick Perry pardoned the defendants last year.

The settlement and Amarillo's pullout are good news, but the Panhandle task force is only one of 45 such agencies in the state. Those task forces have been operating for 17 years but haven't measurably diminished drug availability in that time.

That's because they don't focus on big-time drug dealers or track sales "up the ladder" to catch big importers. Instead, they rely almost entirely on low-level undercover "buy busts" in minority communities to generate arrests and on highway interdictions for asset forfeiture opportunities.

As a result, about 90 percent of the drug arrests in Texas are for mere possession. Those tactics are punishing drug addicts, not drug dealers.

If he wanted, the governor could decide as early as January to spend the federal grant money now going to the task forces on other priorities - including drug courts, treatment programs, murder investigations, gun-crime prosecutions, mentoring for children of incarcerated parents and programs to stop domestic violence.

The state should quit throwing good money after bad and focus its scarce resources on those more effective programs. Indeed, President Bush has proposed, and the House Judiciary Committee already has agreed, to slash the federal funds available for the task forces by half. It is time for Texas to look for better solutions to the state's drug addiction problems.

The Tulia case was just one of a series of infamous and intolerable task force scandals across the state. Most could be traced to the unsupervised nature of the multijurisdictional entities that report to no elected official.

In 1998, then-Gov. George W. Bush denied funding to a task force in the Permian Basin, his home region, after it was found to have set up innocent people and mismanaged undercover investigations. Meanwhile, officers in other task forces set up innocents, stole money and drugs and protected drug dealers.

The task forces aren't the only way Texas conducts drug enforcement, nor are they the most effective. Every city has a police department, and every county has a sheriff, charged with enforcing drug laws.

Then there is the Texas Department of Public Safety, which has 400 narcotics officers whose job is to plug gaps in local enforcement - not to mention the hundreds of federal drug enforcement agents who work in this state as well.

Clearly, the drug war here would remain fully staffed even without the regional narcotics task forces.

I hope the Tulia settlement will mark the beginning of the end for Texas' drug task force system.

It is time to try new approaches.

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