"They Throw Kids on the Ground, Put Guns to Their Heads" -- The Horrors Unleashed by Police Militarization
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As a result, we have roving squads of drug cops, loaded with SWAT gear, who get more money if they conduct more raids, make more arrests, and seize more property, and they are virtually immune to accountability if they get out of line. In 2009 the Justice Department attempted a cost-benefit analysis of these task forces but couldn’t even get to the point of crunching the numbers. The task forces weren’t producing any numbers to crunch. “Not only were data insufficient to estimate what task forces accomplished,” the report read, “data were inadequate to even tell what the task forces did for routine work.”
Not surprisingly, the proliferation of heavily armed task forces that have little accountability and are rewarded for making lots of busts has resulted in some abuse.
The most notorious scandal involving these task forces came in the form of a massive drug sting in the town of Tulia, Texas. On July 23, 1999, the task force donned black ski-mask caps and full SWAT gear to conduct a series of coordinated predawn raids across
Tulia. By 4:00 AM, forty black people—10 percent of Tulia’s black population—and six whites were in handcuffs. The Tulia Sentineldeclared, “We do not like these scumbags doing business in our town. [They are] a cancer in our community, it’s time to give them a major dose of chemotherapy behind bars.” The paper followed up with the headline “Tulia’s Streets Cleared of Garbage.”
The raids were based on the investigative work of Tom Coleman, a sort of freelance cop who, it would later be revealed, had simply invented drug transactions that had never occurred.
The first trials resulted in convictions—based entirely on the credibility of Tom Coleman. The defendants received long sentences. For those who were arrested but still awaiting trial, plea bargains that let them avoid prison time began to look attractive, even if they were in- nocent. Coleman was even named Texas lawman or the year.
But there were some curious details about the raids. For such a large drug bust, the task force hadn’t recovered any actual drugs. Or any weapons, for that matter. And it wasn’t for a lack of looking. The task force cops had all but destroyed the interiors of the homes they raided. Then some cases started falling apart. One woman Coleman claimed sold him drugs could prove she was in Oklahoma City at the time. Coleman had described another woman as six months pregnant—she wasn’t. Another suspect could prove he was at work during the alleged drug sale. By 2004, nearly all of the forty-six suspects were either cleared or pardoned by Texas governor Rick Perry. The jurisdictions the task force served eventually settled a lawsuit with the defendants for $6 million. In 2005, Coleman was convicted of perjury. He received ten years’ probation and was fined $7,500.3
The following year, it all happened again. In November 2000, SWAT teams from the Byrne-funded South Central Texas Narcotics Task Force rolled into Hearne, a town of about five thousand people in Robertson County, to wage another series of coordinated raids. The raids netted twenty-eight arrests—twenty-seven of the suspects were black. One of them was Regina Kelly, a single mother. Kelly wasn’t home when her house was raided, she was waiting tables at a local diner.
The police marched her off the job in handcuffs and tossed her in a jail cell. She first thought she had been arrested for unpaid parking tickets. Kelly’s court-appointed attorney encouraged her to take a plea bargain. Plead guilty, and she’d get eighteen years’ probation. She’d get no prison time and wouldn’t lose her kids. She refused. “I wasn’t going to plead guilty to something I didn’t do,” she told me in a 2007 interview. The attorney went back to DA John Paschall, who then offered five years’ probation. Kelly again refused, and told her attorney to ask for the evidence they had used to indict her. Her attorney brought back a tape recording the DA’s office claimed was evidence of her drug sales. The tape recording was a conversation between two men. There were no female voices, and Kelly’s name was never mentioned. Kelly’s bail was then reduced from $70,000 to $10,000. Her parents were able to post bond, and she never had to go to court again. She was eventually cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.