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If you think the war on drugs is over, just look to the most recent drug task force corruption scandal


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: If you think the war on drugs is over, just look to the most recent drug task force corruption scandal

  • New York lawmakers want to ban sex offenders from the subway. That won’t solve anything.

  • Drug companies fear their products could be used in executions if Arkansas secrecy bill passes

  • Utah prosecutor, a Republican, rolls out prefiling diversion program for low-level offenses

  • Calling home from a Wisconsin jail can be exorbitantly expensive

In the Spotlight

If you think the war on drugs is over, just look to the most recent drug task force corruption scandal

Yesterday, a south Georgia police chief announced that he was disbanding a drug task force after an internal affairs investigation revealed officer abuse, including having sex with confidential informants, and using and distributing narcotics. After the first few tips came in–– one from an officer’s wife, who had caught him with an informant in a motel––a captain failed to act. The officer accused of having sex with the informant has already resigned, and everyone else on the narcotics teams is being reassigned, according to a letter from the Glynn County police chief. A new unit will be formed. [Matt Head / First Coast News]

Last summer, a member of an elite anti-narcotics team in Kentucky intercepted a drug-related shipment, pocketed $40,000, and closed the package, sending it on its way. But he accidentally left a receipt for a $4.76 meal at McDonald’s (sweet tea and cheeseburgers) inside the box. Another narcotics squad picked up the package at its destination in California looking for the cash, which was to serve as evidence, but instead they found the receipt and traced it to the corrupt Kentucky cop. “The box should have helped investigators snag a drug trafficker. Instead, it netted a cop,” wrote Beth Warren for the Louisville Courier Journal. “It also exposed questionable practices by two other detectives and for 19 months sidelined a task force.” The probe spread to cover the entire task force, which “had worked hard to earn a coveted federal designation in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which provides money, training and resources to those policing the most saturated areas.” After abusing his position of power, stealing tens of thousands of dollars, and failing to do his job protecting and serving the people of Kentucky, the corrupt cop received a sentence of five months in prison and five months of home detention. [Beth Warren / Louisville Courier Journal]

Corruption scandals have rocked drug task forces across the country for years. Many task forces are funded by the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, which provides federal funding to state and local jurisdictions to fight drugs. In particular, it provides equipment, including military equipment, to local police. The program, enacted in 1988, waned during the George W. Bush presidency but dramatically expanded under President Barack Obama in 2009 as part of the stimulus package. Vice President Joe Biden touted the increase as a jobs program for cops. [Lewis Beale / Pacific Standard]

One major problem with these grants is that much of the money is predicated on the number, not the quality or impact, of drug arrests. “Throughout America, Byrne grants are consistently used to target very low-level drug dealers for arrest and long-term incarceration,” said Graham Boyd, the director of the ACLU’s Drug Law Reform Project. “You have a drug task force whose goal is to arrest as many people as they can, their funding stream is based on that, so they rely on confidential informants, and their racial profiling is staggering.” [Lewis Beale / Pacific Standard]

In a small Texas town, Tulia, on July 23, 1999, the word of a single informant led police to arrest 46 people, 39 of them Black, for drug dealing. Most of them were innocent.“The informant, Tom Coleman—at one point named ‘Texas Lawman of the Year’—had a checkered law enforcement career, did not wear a recording device during any of his alleged drug buys, made numerous evidentiary errors and was accused of being a racist,” according to Pacific Standard. Coleman was later convicted of perjury. Another mass arrest of Black Texans was carried out by a task force in Hearne. Advocates say incidents like this are “still happening all over America.” [Lewis Beale / Pacific Standard]

“These task forces have a long history of misconduct, of violence, and of running roughshod over constitutional rights,” wrote Radley Balko in the Washington Post in 2017. “It was a task force that killed Georgia pastor Jonathan Ayers. The same task force was involved in securing the warrant for a raid in which a toddler was critically injured by a flash grenade. Another Georgia task force shot and killed David Hooks in 2014. It was a task force that shot and killed 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda.” Balko goes on to list other abuses and atrocities committed by drug task forces in South Carolina, Minnesota, and Ohio. [Radley Balko / Washington Post]

Balko attributes some of the problems to the fact that forces are staffed by local cops that “loosely report to a state law enforcement agency, but oversight tends to be minimal to nonexistent.” As a result, “we have roving squads of drug cops loaded with SWAT gear who get more money if they conduct more raids, make more arrests and seize more property, and they are virtually immune to accountability if they get out of line. In 2009 the U.S. Department of Justice attempted a cost-benefit analysis of these task forces but couldn’t even get to the point of crunching the numbers. The task forces weren’t producing any numbers to crunch. ‘Not only were data insufficient to estimate what task forces accomplished,’ the report read, ‘data were inadequate to even tell what the task forces did for routine work.’” [Radley Balko / Washington Post]

Five years ago, the Brennan Center for Justice investigated the perverse incentives behind these task forces, which, in 2013, numbered around 150. Their research indicates the federal government sends at least $3.8 billion in grants across the country for crime fighting and other criminal justice purposes. In 2016, the Obama administration said it would implement some of the Brennan Center’s recommendations for basing the grants on crime reduction instead of arrests and seizures. But, as Balko notes, the fundamental problem persists: The task forces still act with almost no accountability, and the program still funds enforcement, not treatment or prevention. [Radley Balko / Washington Post] Which is why the Georgia scandal should not have surprised anyone, nor should the next one.

Stories From The Appeal

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

New York Lawmakers Want to Ban Sex Offenders From the Subway. That Won’t Solve Anything. Banishing people will only marginalize them without addressing the problem, an author and civil rights activist writes. [Guy Hamilton-Smith]

Stories From Around the Country

Drug companies fear their products could be used in executions if Arkansas secrecy bill passes: Last month, the Daily Appeal focused on a legislative effort in Arkansas to expand secrecy around the source of execution drugs, making it a felony to identify its makers. Now, two pharmaceutical companies have objected, saying the bill would hamper their ability to ensure their products aren’t being used for executions. Hikma Pharmaceuticals and Fresenius Kabi USA sent letters last month to lawmakers and the governor raising their concerns; both companies oppose the use of their drugs in executions and have sought to ensure this does not happen. The president and CEO of Fresenius Kabi USA said, “If one of our drugs were to be used in lethal injection in Arkansas, this would amount to a breach of our contracts, and it could have far-reaching consequences for public health, given the European Union’s view on capital punishment.” The Republican sponsor of the measure, Senator Bart Hester, said he’s not worried. “From my perspective, the intended consequence is to see [through] some executions, and this bill will ensure that.” [Andrew DeMillo / Associated Press]

Utah prosecutor, a Republican, rolls out prefiling diversion program for low-level offenses: According to newly elected Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, a successful prosecutor doesn’t measure success on how many convictions are attained, but rather in changing lives, hopefully through fewer convictions. This philosophy informs his new prefiling diversion program, which would be aimed at people who commit lower-level, nonviolent crimes, allowing them to complete certain requirements like drug treatment or community service and avoiding charges entirely. “I believe of all the people we prosecute, only 20 percent of them are violent people,” Leavitt said. Leavitt recently stood in for one of his deputy attorneys and handled 138 cases on one court calendar alone. He found that the majority of those cases involved people who committed nonviolent crimes, without a victim other than the person him or herself. [Katie England / Daily Herald]

Calling home from a Wisconsin jail can be exorbitantly expensive: A recent study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that some Wisconsin jails are charging far above the national average for phone calls to family members and lawyers. In some county jails, where people are held pretrial, phone calls can cost up to $22 for 15 minutes. According to Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative, the people responsible for the charges are usually the family members and lawyers. “And what that means … is that if you want to call your lawyer, call your loved ones, call your friends, anybody that might help you prepare that defense before trial, you’re going to have to basically send them a bill,” Bertram said. Minority and low-income communities are disproportionately affected. Those who don’t have a bank account have to use Western Union or Moneygram, which charge additional fees, often nearly 50 percent. These costs could violate the Sixth Amendment because they hamper access to legal counsel. Some laws have capped phone costs, but they often apply only to prisons, not jails. [Mary Kate McCoy / Wisconsin Public Radio]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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