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A Texas Tale Exposes Drug War Abuses

April 16, 2002|ARIANNA HUFFINGTON | Arianna Huffington is a syndicated columnist. E-mail: arianna @ariannaonline.com.

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 in six of the town's African American population.

And now the dismissal of charges last week against Tonya White, one of the final two of the original 43 Tulia defendants, has kicked wide open the door on the dubious nature of the entire Tulia operation while exposing one of the many shadowy corners of the drug war: the power and abuses of drug task forces.

White was freed only after her lawyers uncovered a bank deposit slip that proved she was in Oklahoma City, 300 miles 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 roundup.

Since the bust, Coleman's credibility has come under withering fire. Branded a "compulsive liar" by former co-workers, Coleman was 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 proved 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. There are an estimated 1,000 of these autonomous special units operating nationwide. They came into widespread use in the 1980s as a way of combating the nation's growing drug problem but have morphed into the rampaging mad dogs of the drug war, operating with little oversight or accountability.

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. 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 mind-set that elevates raw numbers over justice.

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.

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."

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 more the norm than an aberration. But despite the mountain of doubt raised about Coleman, Tulia prosecutor Terry McEachern continues to stand by his narc, dismissing Coleman's lies about White as a mistake.

In reality, it's a smoking gun. One that Jeff Blackburn, who represented 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 those convicted in the Tulia sting.

Blackburn's efforts have drawn support from a number of national organizations, including the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Bar Assn. and the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice.

Perry should join them and pardon the Tulia defendants. And the rest of us should take a harder look at the abuses being perpetrated in the name of the war on drugs.

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