Taking Drug Task Forces To Task

Ever heard of Tulia? It's a little town in Texas that was the scene of one of the most shameful miscarriages of justice in modern American history -- a highly questionable undercover drug sting that in the summer of 1999 led to the arrest of one out of every six African-Americans.

But the dismissal of charges last week against Tonya White, one of the final two Tulia defendants, has finally kicked open the door on the dubious nature of the entire Tulia operation and exposed one of the many shadowy corners of the drug war: the power and abuses of drug task forces.

White, whose sister and two brothers were sentenced to a combined 97 years in jail after being caught up in the Tulia drug sweep, avoided a similar fate only after her lawyers uncovered a bank deposit slip that proved she was in Oklahoma City, 300 miles away from Tulia, at the time she was alleged to have sold cocaine to Tom Coleman, the controversial undercover cop whose uncorroborated testimony was the sole basis for the Tulia round-up.

Since the bust, Coleman's credibility has come under withering fire. Branded a "compulsive liar" by former coworkers and unfit for law enforcement work by a sheriff he once served under, Coleman was even arrested for theft in the middle of the Tulia operation, but, amazingly, was still allowed to continue his undercover work. And the prosecution continued to trust him and rely on his word even after it was proven that he had perjured himself on the stand.

But this story is about more than one small town and one bad cop, it's about drug task forces allowed to run wild.

During the Tulia sting, Tom Coleman was working under the auspices of the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force in Amarillo, Texas, one of an estimated 1,000 drug task forces operating nationwide. These autonomous special units, which came into widespread use in the 1980s as a way of combating America's growing drug problem, have morphed into the rampaging mad dogs of the drug war, operating with very little oversight or accountability. And when aggressive law enforcement agencies operate without accountability, what happens is exactly what you would expect to happen.

Reports of their questionable tactics -- particularly the use of unreliable informants and a disturbing focus on poor, black drug users rather than big-time dealers -- are widespread.

And it's taxpayer money that is paying for this wave of abuse, through a federal grant program that has distributed billions of dollars to drug task forces since its inception.

Making matters even worse is that this grant money is tied to the number of busts a task force makes -- the more arrests made, the more money received. The result is a law enforcement mindset that elevates raw numbers over justice, strip mining anyone remotely resembling a plausible defendant from the ranks of those least able to defend themselves against such a well-heeled machine.

"These task forces," says Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU, "have one motive and one motive only: to produce numbers lest they lose their funding for the next year. But no one questions how they go about their business." Of course, if task force dragnets were cast more evenly, ruining the lives not just of the poor but of bankers and brokers with a nasty little coke habit or suburban boomer couples that haven't shaken their taste for getting high now and then, you can bet there would be some questioning.

But they're not. And this emphasis on statistics is why the vast majority of task force arrests are street-level dealers -- it's the easiest kind of bust to make. Why try and infiltrate the secretive and well-guarded world of major drug purveyors when you can just stroll up to a street corner, buy a rock or a little pot, and watch your task force ranking rise -- along with your annual budget.

On TV cop shows, the first thing a detective does when he busts a street dealer is try to cut a deal with the perp in an effort to land a bigger fish. But that's not the way it works in the real world. In Tulia, for example, not a single defendant was offered a reduced sentence in exchange for turning in his or her supplier.

Combined with draconian asset forfeiture laws, the money-for-arrest model has turned avaricious cops into drug war entrepreneurs, all-too-willing to bend the rules in exchange for more money and power. In a grave abuse of our treasured presumption of innocence, forfeiture laws allow police departments to seize and sell any property connected to illegal drugs, even if the owner is never actually charged with a crime.

Task force cops have even started talking like businessmen. Witness this Wall Street-flavored assessment from one Texas task force's quarterly report: "Highway seizures were off a bit this quarter, but crack sales are still strong." Sounds like they would like nothing better than for all of us to jump on the crack bandwagon and buy, buy, buy!

The more you look into drug task forces, the more you realize that the shoddy police work exhibited in Tulia -- shady narc, iffy suspect IDs, a lack of corroborating evidence - is the norm rather than an aberration. "Everybody's talking about Tom Coleman," says Barbara Markham, a former task force agent turned whistle blower. "Well, there are whole task forces of Tom Colemans out there." A very scary thought given an undercover cop's ability to send someone to jail for life solely on his word.

In Tulia, Coleman's word led to the conviction of 42 people, 16 of whom are still in jail serving sentences of up to 435 years. But despite the mountain of doubt raised about Coleman, the Tulia prosecutor, Terry McEachern, continues to stand by his narc -- dismissing Coleman's lies about Tonya White as a mistake.

In reality, it's not a mistake -- it's a smoking gun. One that Jeff Blackburn, who represented Tonya White, hopes will ultimately lead to the overturning of the other Tulia convictions. To that end, he has created the Tulia Legal Defense Project and is about to mount a campaign to get Texas Gov. Rick Perry to pardon the victims of the Tulia sting.

And he's doing all this on his own dime, having invested over $25,000 in the effort. "If you're going to blow 25 grand," Blackburn told me, "what better way to spend it than helping free innocent people?"

Blackburn's efforts have drawn support from a number of national organizations, including the NAACP, the American Bar Association, and the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice.

It's time for Gov. Perry to join them and pardon the Tulia defendants, and for the rest of us to take a much harder look at the abuses being perpetrated in the name of the war on drugs.

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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