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April 2004
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Another drug task force that should be disbanded

Via Last One Speaks — a story that both of us missed when it happened — fortunately the ACLU is on top of it:

DENVER — The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado today filed a lawsuit against the Denver North Metro Drug Task Force on behalf of a local woman who was forced to strip naked in the parking lot of her condominium in full view of her neighbors while male law enforcement officers conducted an unjustified, humiliating, and degrading “decontamination” ritual that had no legitimate purpose. …

The ACLU’s client was forced to stand naked in the pool, apply the cold water to her body and then dunk her head into the water. At least two male firefighters standing inside the small “enclosure” monitored the entire process while holding a hose and a brush. A third male law enforcement officer, watching through a gap in the tarps, issued orders directing each separate step of the “decontamination” ritual. Numerous additional male officers stood in the parking lot nearby where they could observe the woman naked as she shook and shivered from cold, fear, and humiliation.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Denver, seeks a declaration that the SWAT team violated the woman’s Fourth Amendment rights by forcibly breaking into her home and carrying out the search as a “no-knock” raid without legal justification. The lawsuit also contends that the authorities violated the Fourth Amendment by inviting a private videographer with no law enforcement function to accompany them into woman’s home to film the events.

Interestingly, this is the same task force that decided that people don’t have the right to privacy in what they read. In 2000, they went after the Tattered Cover Book Store to find out what books its customers were reading — they thought if they could prove that an individual was reading about methamphetamine, then they could tie them to an alleged meth lab. Fortunately the book store won.
This is a drug task force that is completely out of control. They seem to believe that they are a law unto themselves, answerable only to themselves.
And that is the problem with drug task forces in general (which usually include a combination of local, state, and DEA officers). There is a breakdown in accountability — they often defy local or state rules and procedures, and with current federal drug policy goading them toward excess and financially rewarding them for numbers of arrests, abuse is almost guaranteed. Additionally, they are trained to use military-style techniques against U.S. citizens, not as a last resort, but as standard operation. This dehumanizes targets and makes all of us potential “enemies” (while we’re actually their employers).
This 2002 Alternet article on task forces (which was focusing on Tulia, another task force disaster) notes:

“These task forces,” says Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU, “have one motive and one motive only: to produce numbers lest they lose their funding for the next year. But no one questions how they go about their business.” …

Task force cops have even started talking like businessmen. Witness this Wall Street-flavored assessment from one Texas task force’s quarterly report: “Highway seizures were off a bit this quarter, but crack sales are still strong.”

The more you look into drug task forces, the more you realize that the shoddy police work exhibited in Tulia — shady narc, iffy suspect IDs, a lack of corroborating evidence — is the norm rather than an aberration. “Everybody’s talking about Tom Coleman,” says Barbara Markham, a former task force agent turned whistle blower. “Well, there are whole task forces of Tom Colemans out there.” A very scary thought given an undercover cop’s ability to send someone to jail for life solely on his word.

Not convinced? — here’s some excerpts from a 2002 Drug War Chronicle article on task forces (a Texas focus again, but the problem is national), which also includes a long list of specific abuses and then goes on to note:

“You don’t need these kinds of units,” said Harrington [director of Texas Civil Liberties Project]. “They need to abolish these task forces all together. They are structured so you can’t avoid this sort of abuse. What in heaven’s name was the point in creating all these regional task forces?

Money, of course.

“These things need to be abolished,” he told DRCNet. “They are ridiculous and dangerous. They botch things up, they’re unprofessional, and they’re violating peoples’ rights with serious consequences.”

And there is something people can do, he said. “There is growing grassroots pressure to de-fund and de-legitimize these task forces. These things are funded at the county level, so if people agitate at the county level that can be very effective. If the counties don’t ask for the federal money, that’s the end of it.”

Got a drug task force forming in your community? Just say no.