Governor Rick Perry has ordered that the Department of Public Safety begin monitoring the state's 49 narcotics task forces following allegations that some of the drug teams were little more than vigilantes run amok.
"What the DPS involvement will do is make sure all the bases have been touched," says Jay Kimbrough, executive director of the governor's criminal justice division.
Several task forces, especially those in rural areas, have been accused of gross injustices, specifically the unit working in the Panhandle. Almost two years ago, the national press grabbed on to the story there about the tiny town of Tulia, where a task force arrested more than 10 percent of the city's black population on drug charges. The charges were based on the unsubstantiated claims of one officer with a murky past.
Authorities uncovered similar problems last year in Hearne, a town about 120 miles northwest of Houston (see "Drug Money," by Tim Carman and Steve McVicker, September 6, 2001).
"Tulia was not an aberration," says Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas American Civil Liberties Union. "It's happened in every region of the state. We do think [the order] is finally a step in the right direction in addressing a problem that's existed for some time. But [its success] will depend on the actors in the system."
Under the order, which took effect earlier this year, task forces -- which include the Harris County Sheriff's Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force -- will be overseen by DPS regional captains. In the past, such units filed monthly activity reports with the state on the number of arrests made and the amount of drugs seized. But the DPS will now play an integral role in the task forces' daily operations.
The new rules require task forces to make regular reports to the DPS captain and get approval from that official before interrogating underage informants conducting undercover drug buys and operating outside their jurisdictions.
According to Harrell, the rules address concerns of civil rights activists who say these areas are most vulnerable to abuse by task force officers. For example, the ACLU says there are several cases where police have illegally questioned minors when their parents were not present or had not given their permission.
"These are the principal issues, as well as racial profiling," says Harrell.
The new regulations also call for the DPS to keep closer watch on labs used by task forces to test suspected drugs.
"Before, we did not necessarily know who was involved in the analysis and storage of evidence, and we didn't know how secure the evidence was," says Kimbrough.
The order also creates a DPS database to track task force members. According to Harrell, injustices often stemmed from the use of so-called gypsy cops, who make a living moving from one agency to another, racking up arrests. It was this kind of rogue officer who was responsible for the arrests in Tulia. Now, a task force will be aware of an officer's record with other task forces.
"We think the database will be a great benefit in terms of dealing with negative issues," says Kimbrough. "And conversely, if you've got a star, you're going to know that too."
Some cities, such as Fort Worth, argue that the new DPS oversight undermines local authority, although that does not seem to be the case in the Houston area.
"So far it's been a pretty easy transition," says Lieutenant Rickie Williams of Harris County's Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force. Williams says the task force always followed proper procedures, making the DPS's involvement a minor issue.
"We've had to reorganize a few things," he says. "But the general sense is this is a good thing."
The task forces began forming with federal grants in the late 1980s. A task force could opt not to be monitored by the DPS, but that decision would lose the unit its federal funding. According to Kimbrough, all state task forces have signed on.
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And while Harrell applauds the governor's order, he warns that the hunger for federal grants has fostered abuse in the system before.
"They get money from the federal government to make these arrests," says Harrell. "They've evolved into highway bandits."
The governor's order, Harrell adds, does not undo the damage created by the task forces from years past.
"Finally there will be some oversight," he says. "But no one's talking about the dozens and dozens of people in prison right now who were caught in unscrupulous drug raids."