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Police: Rethink drug reforms

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  • slim jim

    Official News Guy
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    Mar 18, 2008
    Police: Rethink drug reforms

    Small agencies face big challenges

    [FONT=Optima, Arial, Helvetica]By Chris Ramirez[/FONT]
    [FONT=Optima, Arial, Helvetica][/FONT]
    [FONT=Optima, Arial, Helvetica]Publication Date: 03/30/08[/FONT]

    DIMMITT - Bogus evidence. Fake warrants. Reams of flawed written statements from a rogue cop.
    Nearly a decade ago, that was enough to send dozens of people in Tulia - most of them black - to long prison terms.
    The state responded with sweeping reforms over how drug task-force operations are run in Texas.
    Now, debate is percolating once again.
    The issue this time is whether those reformed rules should be loosened.
    Some rural police agencies say nabbing drug kingpins in less-populated corners of the state has gotten tougher since a 2005 law went on the books regulating how task forces are organized and coordinated.
    They say they're understaffed, underfunded and need help filling the gaps.
    "We miss them (drug task forces)," said Franky Scott, president of the Texas Panhandle Peace Officers Association. "When you take away our ability to put together a specialized group to work on a specialized type of crime ... it's like chopping off an arm."
    SB-1125, adopted by the 79th Legislature, sought to place the state's few remaining drug task forces under Texas Department of Public Safety supervision. Before, they operated independently, funded through the federal Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program.
    The program in recent years has come under fire from civil rights groups. They claimed the program - in Texas, at least - was rife with corruption.
    And now the number of drug arrests has gone down in some areas of the state as a result, they argue.
    Scott and others have shared their concerns about the law with area legislators, urging change. But its author and organizations such as the NAACP caution against it.
    They don't want a repeat of the Tulia drug-arrest scandal.
    "People fabricated evidence, they were stopping motorists without probable cause," said state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, who wrote SB-1125. They would take weapons and drugs and not report it."
    He described task forces before the change as "generally lacking coordination and guidance."
    "There was no accountability," Hinojosa said. "None."
    Ties to Tulia
    Forty six Tulia residents - about 15 percent of the town's black population - were charged with drug crimes in 1999. The arrests stemmed mainly from claims of undercover narcotics agent Tom Coleman.
    No weapons, money or drugs ever were produced.
    Floyd Anthony, president of the Amarillo branch of the NAACP, doesn't buy the argument that rural police have been left with few options against drug lords.
    Complaints about abuse and civil rights violations by rural residents have gone "way down" ever since SB-1125's adoption, he contends. Altering the law now could be a big mistake.
    "When you see a condition that appears to enable specific groups to be targeted ... you have to do something about it. That's what we did," Anthony said. "We need some types of safeguard to make sure what happened in Tulia doesn't ever happen again."
    Gov. Rick Perry pardoned 38 of the Tulia defendants in 2003. He thought the evidence was flimsy. They later won a $5 million settlement from the state, and Coleman was convicted of perjury. An appeals court in February upheld his 10-year probation.
    Scott conceded errors were made in the Tulia case, but believes lawmakers overreacted. They were overzealous adopting SB-1125, he said.
    "If you've got one bad apple, you deal with that one apple," Scott said. "When you put everyone into the same barrel ... and disband the entire program over it, it's just not fair."
    Agencies still are able to form local task forces under the new law. The main restriction is they must be supervised by DPS if they want state funding to finance their efforts.
    "We're not punishing anybody. They can still exist," Hinojosa, D-Mission, said. "But there have to be guidelines. We're just making sure uniformed laws are being complied with."
    Meth and rural Texas
    For Sal Rivera, help can't come soon enough.
    He has seen the meth scourge evolve in Castro County, one county over from where the Tulia raids took place.
    Rivera was appointed Castro County sheriff just last year. But on Aug. 18, 1995, he was a police officer for the city of Dimmitt.
    Back then, meth was something Rivera and other cops only read about in pamphlets and police handouts.
    Then the call came.
    It was from a home reporting a domestic disturbance. Rivera pulled over the suspect's car a few blocks away and walked to the driver's side window.
    The driver tossed out a bundle. It was a 3.5-gram eight ball of crank.
    "It landed right at my feet," Rivera said. "It was wrapped the same way as cocaine, so I knew it was a controlled substance of some kind."
    The arrest marked the first meth bust in Castro County.
    Castro County deputies made 34 drug arrests between Jan. 1, 2007, and March, sheriff's office data shows. In 2000, there were 68 arrests in the county for drug cases of all types, according to FBI statistics.
    Scott, also the sheriff in Hartley County, admits many drugs seized by rural officers are discovered when deputies are dealing with a suspect for an unrelated crime, such as a traffic violation.
    He and Rivera think a majority of other crimes committed in Castro County - even low-level burglaries and thefts - can be traced back to drug use or trafficking.
    Fighting a growing meth problem has become an increasing challenge for a sheriff's department with an operating budget of $780,000 and six deputies to patrol a 900-square-mile county.
    "If we're doing surveillance on a drug house ... and get a call about an ammonia explosion somewhere else in the county, we have to break off (watching the house) and go to that call," Rivera said. "The government needs to help us out."
    I-40 corridor
    It takes about three hours to drive the 177-mile length of Texas' sliver of Interstate 40.
    But the Texas Department of Public Safety claims the tiny section of highway is a major pipeline for narcotics.
    In 2007, DPS troopers confiscated more than $26 million in marijuana, cocaine and other drugs during busts on Texas' segment of I-40, according to recently released data. The year before, $20 million in drugs and $3.2 million in currency was intercepted there. Source: Texas Department of Public Safety
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    Feb 21, 2008
    Austin, TX
    Slim Jim, I think we need to nominate you as resident Texas Gun Talk Newscaster! You are single-handedly keeping this News Article section alive! ;)
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