Funding cuts, accountability mandates and public distrust have reduced the number of regional narcotics task forces in Texas to 23 – less than half as many as three years ago, reports the San Antonio Express-News. The decline is forecast to continue. Civil rights groups cheer the demise of the multijurisdictional units, created in 1987, saying they are prone to corruption and a poor use of grants. “There have been many scandals, not just two or three,” said Scott Henson of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Drug task forces setting up innocent people, stealing money from their confidential informant fund, stealing drugs from evidence lockers, coercing informants.”
Some county officials complain that drug smugglers are the big winners. “I think you had a few bad apples and it’s killed the rest of us,” said Richard Dolgener, county judge in Andrews County, one of three rural counties in the Trans-Pecos Drug Task Force until it disbanded Sept. 30. The end of funding next March from a federal grant that covered many task force expenses is a big reason units say they’re disbanding. In 2004, task forces received about 80 percent of the $31.6 million in so-called Byrne “formula grants” sent to Texas, second only to California, from the program that doled out $475 million nationwide. The task forces still are eligible for aid from the new “justice assistance grants” program, a marriage of formula grants and federal block grants. The state began tightening rules for task forces in 2002, after the 1999 case in Tulia, Tx., where 46 people, most of them black, were arrested for allegedly selling drugs to a task force agent with scant evidence of crimes. In 2003, Gov. Rick Perry pardoned 35 Tulia defendants, and in 2004 the plaintiffs in a civil rights lawsuit reached a $6 million settlement with the task force and other parties.