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.”
- 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.
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.