Skip to main content

Feature: Faced With Slashed Federal Grants, Drug Task Forces Howl... and Plot to Get Their Funding Back

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #520)
Consequences of Prohibition

For years, Congress has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants through the Justice Action Grant (JAG)/Byrne grant program to aid state and local anti-drug efforts, with much of the money going to multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, the controversial multi-agency police squads who make prosecuting the drug war their livelihood. But funding for the program was dramatically slashed in the omnibus federal budget passed a few weeks ago, and ever since, a curious phenomenon has occurred: In newspapers across the land, stories with headlines like these have been popping up: Grant Cut Threatens Narcotics Task Force (Kentucky), Drug Task Force Discusses Grant Cut (Georgia), Cuts Could Affect Local Drug Task Force (Iowa).

That's no accident. The spate of stories bemoaning the sorry state of the multi-jurisdictional anti-drug task forces is part of a campaign by law enforcement and state and local elected officials to restore the $350 million hit the JAG/Byrne grant program took this year. Ron Brooks, executive director of the National Narcotics Officers Associations Coalition told the Chronicle Tuesday that the coalition to restore grant funding had managed to get 120 stories or letters to the editor like those above published so far.

Funded at $520 million last year, the two-decade old program that allows states to supplement their anti-drug spending with federal tax dollars was already down substantially from previous funding levels. For the past three years, as a cost-cutting move, the Bush administration has tried to zero it out completely, but that has proven extremely unpopular with Congress. This year, the House voted to fund the block grant portion of the program at $600 million and the Senate at $660 million, but in last-minute budget negotiations, the White House insisted the funding be cut.

"The Democrats wanted to restore Bush's previous cuts to the program," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "In fact, they wanted to increase it over last year, but it was Bush's hard-stance on domestic spending that forced them to cut the program at the end. The Democrats, and most Republicans, wanted to restore the funding."

Now, Brooks and his allies are regrouping to seek renewed funding in a supplemental appropriations bill this year. "The Byrne grants are really the only funding stream to help chiefs and sheriffs participate in multi-jurisdictional drug task forces," said Brooks. "This means task forces around the country will close, and we will no longer be able to focus multi-jurisdictional effort on drug trafficking organizations -- we'll be back to picking the low-hanging fruit."

"Trying to get more funding through a supplemental appropriations bill will be an uphill battle," DPA's Piper predicted. "It will be either the war funding or the economic stimulus bill, and both are going to be very expensive. Politically, there is only so much money they can put in those bills if they want to pass them. And if they try to attach it to the Iraq funding, we can argue that every dollar going to the cops is a dollar taken from the soldiers."

But failing to fund the task forces could lead to increased criminality, Brooks warned. "We can show the nexus between drugs and crime and gangs," he said. "We anticipate increases in violent crime because of this."

"We're very upset by the cutback," said Don Murray, legislative director for justice and public safety for the National Association of Counties (NACO), which is part of the coalition seeking redress. "The Byrne/JAG program is a major systemic approach to dealing with crime."

It may be a systemic approach, but it is a system that has been the site of scandalous abuses and one that has been roundly criticized by everyone from tax-watch groups to civil libertarians. It was federally funded Texas drug task forces that committed the Tulia and Hearne scandals, where large numbers of minority citizens were arrested, convicted, and imprisoned on nonexistent evidence, and that was only the tip of the iceberg in the Lone Star State. Drug task forces are also involved in some of those horrendous drug botched raids that have left a toll of dead civilians, suspects, and police officers. On a more banal level, drug task force members have made regular appearances in our Corrupt Cops Stories of the Week feature.

In the wake of the Tulia scandal and other task force scandals in her home state and beyond, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) introduced a 2005 bill to rein in the task forces. While that bill never went anywhere, the Bush budget ax may accomplish more than Jackson-Lee ever dreamed.

At the time, Jesselyn McCurdy, an ACLU legislative counsel, addressed the problems with the task forces: "These drug task forces around the country haven't had to answer to anyone," she said. "As a result of this lack of state and federal oversight, they've been at the center of the some of the country's most egregious law enforcement abuse scandals. The law enforcement agents involved in these scandals weren't just a few bad apples," McCurdy said.

The JAG/Byrne grant program that funds the task forces seeded the above litany of abuses "has proved to be an ineffective and inefficient use of resources," said four conservative tax-payer organizations -- American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, Citizens against Government Waste, and National Taxpayers Union -- in a 2005 statement calling for the Bush administration to zero out funding.

While most attention around the grant program is centered on the funding of the drug task forces, NACO's Murray said, the money also pays for other drug policy costs. "The program covers law enforcement, courts, corrections, prevention, and drug treatment," he said. "When you look at these programs at the local level, JAG is crucial," he said.

When asked why state and local authorities don't fund their own law enforcement initiatives, Murray said they already do, but it isn't enough. "In 2002, we commissioned a survey of county criminal justice spending, and we found that the counties were spending $53 billion a year on it," he said. "But given all the issues we face -- reentry, the mentally ill behind bars, healthcare -- it isn't enough."

Law enforcement and its allies are mobilizing, Brooks said. "Nobody saw this coming," he said. "We formed a working group back in 2005, when these cuts were first proposed, mostly of national associations, and now we have some 30 groups representing almost a million members. We've got everybody from drug court judges to NACO to the National Association of Police Chiefs and the National Association of Attorneys General. Getting the funding back is the sole purpose of our coalition," he said.

The coalition will be working a two-track approach, he said. "We will try to encourage the leadership of Congress to restore this money in a supplemental funding vehicle, either the economic stimulus or the war funding supplemental, but that will only happen if the leadership opens the door," he said. "We're also doing grassroots work back in our communities. That's how the 120 articles got published."

While DPA's Piper said that restoring the grant funding would be an uphill battle, his organization is doing its best to counter the law enforcement offensive. "We will be working the Hill, trying to do some push-back in the media, and reaching out to taxpayer and conservative groups that have traditionally supported eliminating this program," Piper said. "But the real question is whether Bush will stand his ground and whether Republicans will back him."

President Bush has proven to be an unlikely ally in the fight to rein in federal funding of the drug war, but Congress appears vulnerable to pressure from the men with badges. And they're working hard: When Brooks spoke with the Chronicle this week, he was in the Hart Senate Office Building on his way to lobby staffers.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

The economic writing was on the wall as far back as 2000; the economy was and is in an increasingly worse situation, and that should have been the signal to begin cuts back then. But just like a bunch of drunks on somebody else's tab, they just kept guzzling down all that grant money that was needed for infrastructure...and now more is needed for the wars this country is involved in. The chickens have come home to roost, and they're awful big and hungry and will not be denied.

The party's over, narcs; the DrugWar always was a 'rich man's hobby', a product of the belief that we had enough money to cover important stuff that we could afford to throw some away on such stupidity; worse, it has always been paid for with borrowed money, because the tax base of the US simply cannot support all the budgetary liabilities represented by all the other government programs. Now our foreign creditors have been calling in markers, the dollar is circling the toilet bowl, and Uncle has to make some good faith measures such as cutting the budget further to re-assure those creditors that he's serious about buckling down.

And that means elimination of everything that isn't of paramount importance to national survival...which the DrugWar most definitely isn't. The 'champagne' has stopped flowing; it's beer-budget time. The narcs can lobby all they want, but the ugly reality of a recession coupled with widespread unemployment is looming on the horizon, and that means that Joe Sixpack will need the money pissed away on the DrugWar for unemployment insurance. He's not going to take lightly the claim that the money is needed to protect his kids when he needs that money to feed, clothe and house them.

History is repeating itself, once more. And I fear the lesson will be just as painful as last time. But at least it may cause the end of the DrugWar by default.

Fri, 01/25/2008 - 11:34am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Yep, the party's over for the fascist police-mentality drug warriors, we can't afford too many ward now can we?

Good luck getting your funding back, you can't squeeze blood from a stone.

We should all be thanking Bush for destroying most of what all the Republicans from Nixon on have "accomplished".

Thanks, George. I really mean that.

Fri, 01/25/2008 - 1:42pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a step in the right direction as far as im concerned now if they would cut the DEA's funding so they will leave legally approved medical marijuana users and dispenseries alone we will really be making some progress.

Fri, 01/25/2008 - 2:21pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I am calling all my congress critters -- NO funding for Drug Task groups. I'll mention that the task groups have been found corrupt plus the soldiers and families are move deserving of the dollars. And I can't believe that I want to thank George Bush, but I actually do too!!!!

Fri, 01/25/2008 - 2:34pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

There's an easy stimulus plan that would free up massive resources and generate much needed revenue for state and local governments: Legalizing cannabis. Heck many users/purveyors would gladly pay a hefty tax on their product simply to be left alone.

Fri, 01/25/2008 - 8:03pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

"The Democrats wanted to restore Bush's previous cuts to the program," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "In fact, they wanted to increase it over last year, but it was Bush's hard-stance on domestic spending that forced them to cut the program at the end. The Democrats, and most Republicans, wanted to restore the funding."

The Dems are just as guilty (if not more so) than the Repugs in waging this war against the people. Vote Ron Paul for a quicker ending of this atrocity we call "the war on (some) drugs".

Sat, 01/26/2008 - 4:38am Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

[email protected] Vancouver,B.C It's sad that it takes a recession to bring a little sanity to the US. Whatever it takes it's gotta be worth it in the end if we get rid of this cowboy mentality that these task forces introduced and fostered in law enforcement.Corruption is inevitable when there's this kind of cash found laying around with no other witnesses.Drugs are used to pay informants who are often far more dangerous than the people they turn in.Is there a little Dennis somewhere behind all this?I'd like to think so.I truly hope this is the beginning of the end of runaway law enforcement.Now,if we can just get rid of Steven Harper.Maybe we'll see some positive changes in Canada.While the Americans seem to be getting the message.Harper is trying to take us back to the bad old days.Of course the 60's look good now.That's because the drug war just gets worse and worse a.....

Mon, 01/28/2008 - 4:54am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It is a fact that the drug war is the door toward the subjecation of the free peoples of North America's and the world in proper order. It is a tool and nothing more. Our judicial system enables and promotes this struggle with government fueling it with fearmongering. Regardless of the party affiliation (Republicans or Democrates) there is nothing we can do to change these things short of bloodshed, and the Government is more readily apt to persue this course than the peasents. Stay enguaged, but be prepaired to loose.

Sat, 01/26/2008 - 12:09pm Permalink
sicntired (not verified)

[email protected] Vancouver,B.C. Canada That's one too many zeros.Just like the drug war budget,too many zeros.The cops are writing letters to congress and the media.Can we do any less?Let's not take the chance that they may find someone to listen without any rebuttal.An on-line petition would help.

Mon, 01/28/2008 - 5:00am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

And false morality. But there are less cookies in the jar to go around. And I see it becoming fewer still in the very near future. Shame that it takes a literal bankruptcy to end a moral one.

Mon, 01/28/2008 - 10:48am Permalink
aahpat (not verified)

But failing to fund the task forces could lead to increased criminality, Brooks warned. "We can show the nexus between drugs and crime and gangs," he said. "We anticipate increases in violent crime because of this."

I beg to differ.


©Jeffrey Miron
Jeffrey A. Miron, Professor of Economics, Department of Economics, Boston University,

Actual and projected expenditures. Text does not clearly distinguish which is which.

"The homicide rate was high in the 1920-1933 period, when constitutional prohibition of alcohol was in effect, as it was in the 1970-1990 period, when drug prohibition was enforced to a stringent degree. After repeal of alcohol prohibition, the homicide rate dropped quickly and remained low during a period when drug prohibition, although in existence, was not vigorously enforced. And the homicide rate was lowest at the beginning of the sample, when neither alcohol nor drug prohibition existed at the federal level and only in a minor way at the state level."
More on my blog at: Allentown Police: Drug War Causing Gang Violence

And: How To Reduce Gun Violence In Philadelphia - Part 2

And: Police Officer Line of Duty Gun Deaths for the 20th century.

Wed, 01/30/2008 - 10:45am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

its about time these crimnals were defunded now lets hang em in the town squares all over america GET THE ROPE

Thu, 01/31/2008 - 4:54pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at

Fri, 12/19/2008 - 8:25am Permalink

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.