There’s a massive and growing drug task force scandal unfolding in New Orleans.
For the past year, the U.S. Justice Department has grappled with the fallout from a New Orleans-based narcotics task force accused of peddling painkillers, threatening confidential informants and swiping cash during drug raids.
The scandal has upended a growing number of federal criminal cases and prompted felony charges against two members of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force, including a Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy who quickly pleaded guilty to his role in a wide-ranging drug conspiracy.
The FBI continues to review a host of allegations — some too old to be prosecuted — against Chad Scott, a veteran DEA agent and former leader of the task force who has been stripped of his gun and badge.
But even as the full scope of the inquiry remains unclear, new questions are emerging regarding the oversight of the task force and a series of red flags that officials appear to have overlooked for years before launching a secretive investigation in early 2016.
Interviews with four current and former law enforcement officials and documents reviewed by The Advocate show the DEA had been warned more than a decade ago by its own agents, confidential informants and other sources of information that task force members, including Scott, were playing by their own rules, disregarding DEA policies and at times even profiting from an illicit drug trade . . .
None of this is new, or particularly surprising. These task forces have a long history of misconduct, of violence and of running roughshod over constitutional rights. 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. It was a South Carolina task force shot Julian Betton multiple times, then lied about whether they knocked and announced, and whether Betton had fired his weapon. The Minnesota cop recently caught assaulting a motorist in a road-rage video that went viral was a member of a task force that boasts about “aggressive enforcement.” An Ohio task force member shot and killed Krystal Barrows in 2013. It was a Utah task force that shot and killed Todd Blair during a nighttime drug raid. The same task force then lost one of its own members after another nighttime raid resulted in a shootout with Matthew David Stewart. That task force had taken out bus ads featuring members dressed in full battle armor, encouraging citizens to call in tips about drug use.
In Texas, it was a task force that was responsible for the mass arrests of black residents in the towns of Tulia and Hearne, most of whom turned out to be innocent. In fact, things got so bad in Texas that Republican Gov. Rick Perry tried to phase out the task forces. Just in the past few years, there have been task force scandals in Louisville; Chicago; Reynoldsburg, Ohio; Northern Kentucky; South Texas; Salem, Va.; and along the Texas-Mexico border.
There are a number of reasons these task forces keep encountering problems. I outlined a few of them in my 2013 book about police militarization:
While the Reagan and [first] Bush administrations had set up a number of drug task forces in border zones, the Byrne grant program established similar task forces all across the country. They seemed particularly likely to pop up in rural areas that didn’t yet have a paramilitary police team (what few were left).
The task forces are staffed with local cops drawn from the police agencies in the jurisdictions where the task force operates. Some squads loosely report to a state law enforcement agency, but oversight tends to be minimal to nonexistent. Because their funding comes from the federal government—and whatever asset forfeiture proceeds they reap from their investigations—local officials can’t even control them by cutting their budget. This organizational structure makes some task forces virtually unaccountable, and certainly not accountable to any public official in the region they cover.
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.”
That lack of transparency has continued. In 2015, the marijuana advocacy group Show Me Cannabis tried to uncover how Missouri’s various drug task forces were funded. They didn’t learn much about funding, but they did discover some disturbing things about the culture of these units.
- The St. Louis Metropolitan Drug Task Force denies its own existence to citizens filing open records requests.
- The MUSTANG Drug Task Force harasses citizens who attempt to obtain basic information about their public finances.
- The NITRO Drug Task Force pretended we had the wrong number when we called their publicly listed number to file an open records request, before admitting to the lie minutes later. NITRO maintains they are not subject to Missouri’s Sunshine Law.
- The COMET Drug Task Force accidentally copied us on an internal email discussing how to best avoid complying with the Sunshine Law. They later attempted to avoid providing records that showed the task force failed to maintain adequate oversight with the claim that the records could be closed under an exception to the Sunshine Law relating to terrorism.
- The Jefferson County Drug Task Force failed to establish an oversight board as required by state law (RSMo 195.509). Their commanding officer responded to open records requests by mocking our request and refusing to comply with the Sunshine law.
- Despite claims that drug task forces help combat the spread of dangerous drugs like methamphetamine and heroin, most of the state’s task forces primarily seize marijuana.
In 2014, the Brennan Center for Justice looked at the perverse incentives behind how the task forces get their funding, and found a slew of perverse incentives.
The Byrne JAG program, widely expanded during the War on Drugs, largely subsidizes equipment for local police. As the Brennan Center has documented in previous reports, the program inadvertently creates incentives to increase arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration. For example, it evaluates recipients on the number of criminal cases opened, but not whether crime dropped. It asks them how many kilos of cocaine were seized, but not how many people were sent to drug treatment. It asks how many cases were prosecuted, but not how many petty offenders were diverted from prison.
Strikingly, these examples are just a few among many such initiatives. In 2013, the Department of Justice administered more than 150 of these programs. Hundreds of other federal programs administered by different agencies provide additional dollars while slipping the leash of accountability and clear direction. Research by the Brennan Center indicates the federal government sends at least $3.8 billion in federal criminal justice grants across the country for crime fighting and other criminal justice purposes, not including the billions sent through national security programs run by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
These dollars often flow on autopilot. Too frequently, they incentivize antiquated practices that we now know have little public safety value and massive human consequences.
The group sensibly recommended that grants be awarded on criteria such as reducing the crime rate instead of the number of arrests or quantity of drugs seized.
Over the years, the two major political parties have shared the blame for the ongoing problems with drug task forces. The Byrne grants used to create the task forces were started during the George H.W. Bush administration. Funding for the grants then increased throughout the Clinton administration. The George W. Bush administration and some Republicans in Congress actually tried to scale them back — and had some success, reducing the annual allotment from $500 million to $170 million. But the program long touted by Joe Biden returned with a vengeance during the Obama administration. As part of the 2009 stimulus package, Obama pledged $2 billion to the program, 12 times what it received the previous year, and about four times the most funding it had ever received in a single year. Biden celebrated the increase as a jobs program for cops.
In 2016, the Obama administration announced that it would be implementing some of the Brennan Center’s recommendations for basing the grants on crime reduction instead of arrests and seizures. But it’s still funding enforcement (instead of treatment), and the new changes still don’t address the problems with accountability and transparency with these task forces.
It isn’t yet clear what the Trump administration and GOP will do with the program. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Trump has proposed a 22 percent cut in Byrne Grant funding, but it isn’t clear if that will survive the GOP Congress, which has carved out a pretty staunch pro-policing posture of late. Of course, so has Trump, and so has his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. It’ll be interesting to see not only what happens to the level of funding, but whether they’ll continue the Obama administration change to more evidence-based methods of distributing it.
As I’ve pointed out here before, we’re always just a crisis away from repeating the mistakes of the past. So it isn’t difficult to see Trump changing course on funding, particularly if he wants to look as if he’s doing something about the opioid crisis. Giving more money to police officers is almost always politically popular. If he does shift course, it looks as if Congress will be ready to help. Last fall, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced a bill to fight the opioid crisis by providing funding for — you guessed it — multi-jurisdictional drug task forces.