A 16-year-old federal program that has poured millions of dollars each year into some 750 regional anti-drug task forces is being criticized for a lack of oversight has led to wrongful convictions of citizens and theft, perjury, and misuse of public funds by law enforcement officers, reports USA Today. Much of the criticism stems from the case of Tulia, Tx., where more than 40 residents – most of them black – were jailed after an officer allegedly lied in court about selling them drugs during a sting operation in 1999. The aftermath included the disbanding of the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, a multiagency unit that covered 26 counties.
Now, investigations into possible misconduct by members of other federally funded task forces are underway in nine states. In some cases, criminal charges against people arrested in drug stings have been dismissed; in other cases, convictions have been overturned. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have asked Congress to overhaul or eliminate the program that funds the task forces. Critics say multicounty task forces are too easily corrupted and have become ineffective. “These are nameless, faceless, roaming operations that are not subject to the ballot box or city council scrutiny,” says Will Harrell of the Texas ACLU, which has urged the Texas Legislature to disband all 45 of that state’s task forces. “The states assume no responsibility over their actions. All they are required to do is report their numbers of arrests. It’s all about quantity, not quality.”
Anti-drug task forces operate throughout the country. They get 75 percent of their funding from the federal Byrne grant program and 25 percent from local counties. The federal program, named for Edward Byrne, a New York City police officer who was killed on duty in 1988, was created under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 to provide money to help states reduce violent crime and fight drugs. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, says the panel will hold oversight hearings into the Tulia scandal in May.