In early March, a federally-funded narcotics task force struggling to increase its fiscal support carried out a crime sweep in 41 states. The sweep resulted in 4,200 arrests, with police seizing large amounts of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine. Why a massive raid? Was it the aim of the task force to eliminate street narcotics in the name of a drug-free society? Nope. The cops were merely trying to protect their bottom line.
The operation, called the “Byrne Blitz,” was carried out, mostly, to show the importance of the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program. Byrne grants fund more than 4,000 police officers and prosecutors that support 750 drug enforcement task forces in 50 states. Fifty-six Attorneys-General joined twelve law enforcement groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police, to lead the charge for increased funding and gather support on Capitol Hill. The program’s funds were drastically reduced by Congress in 2008 to $170 million–more than two-thirds of its 2007 funding and significantly lower than its 2002 budget of nearly $900 million.
The Byrne grant program has its critics, including the White House whose officials were quoted in the New York Times as saying that the program has not demonstrated results. I agree with the White House. In fact, I would take it a step further — the Byrne program should not be funded at all. Dozens of major scandals exist, showing the pitfalls of the program that has clearly wasted billions of dollars and perpetuated racial disparities, police corruption, and civil rights abuses.
The most notorious example occurred in 1999 in Tulia, TX. Residents of this sleepy Texas town felt a mini version of a “Byrne Blitz” when 46 people were scooped up and arrested in a sting operation funded by the Byrne program. Tom Coleman, an undercover cop, conducted an 18-month, racially motivated sting that eventually earned him the “Outstanding Lawman of the Year” award from the Attorney General of Texas.
The drug bust incarcerated almost 15 percent of the black population in Tulia, sentencing them to a total of 750 years in prison. Coleman was eventually discredited and found guilty of perjury. He was sentenced to 10 years probation. Thirty five of those arrested by Coleman were pardoned in 2003 by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and a $5 million settlement from an eventual civil suit was awarded to those arrested in the Texas sting.
In 2002, a report issued by the ACLU of Texas named 17 scandals involving Byrne-funded, anti-drug forces in Texas. The tainted cases were rife with instances of falsifying government records, fabricating evidence and other abuses of power. Recent scandals in other states include the misuse of millions of dollars in federal grant money in Kentucky and Massachusetts, and false convictions based on police perjury in Missouri. The list goes on with additional abuses in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin.
The Byrne grant program has been criticized for wasting tax dollars and failing to reduce crime. Several leading conservative groups, such as the American Conservative Union and Citizens Against Government Waste, have called on Congress to completely eliminate the Byrne program because it has been proven to be an ineffective and inefficient use of resources.
The original intent of the Byrne program was to provide financial support to state and local governments to make communities safe and improve criminal justice systems. This surely is not the case, based on its history of corruption and the destruction of human lives. In this struggling economy, misguided policies from the federal government need to be eliminated, not supported.