FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
HEARNE, TX -- At a community meeting tonight, African American residents in this rural community of 5,000, where the American Civil Liberties Union recently settled a major civil rights lawsuit against agents of a federally funded regional narcotics task force, will meet with local and state officials to discuss ways to work together to reform drug law enforcement in Robertson County, where Hearne is located.
"These federally funded drug task forces are on their way out," said Will Harrell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas. "What happened in Hearne and in Tulia is happening all over Texas. Tonight's meeting will be a chance for the community to seek out real solutions and alternatives to this problematic system of drug law enforcement."
The ACLU and Robertson County announced on May 11, 2005 the settlement of the ACLU's lawsuit, Kelly v. Paschall, against the county, agents of the Drug Task Force, and the District Attorney. The details of the settlement are confidential, but both sides stated that they were satisfied with the outcome. Representatives from both the ACLU and the county plan to attend tonight's meeting.
The lawsuit arose from the arrest of almost 15 percent of the town's young, black male population on felony cocaine charges in a drug raid conducted on November 2000. The arrests were made based on the uncorroborated word of an unreliable confidential informant who later recanted his testimony. Seven people arrested pled guilty before the District Attorney ultimately dismissed charges against the plaintiffs in the ACLU's lawsuit.
Tonight's community meeting comes at a time when state and federal policymakers are closely scrutinizing the $800 million federal Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, which funds the operation of regional narcotics task forces nationwide. Texas' annual Byrne grant was reduced from $31.6 million in 2004 to $22.7 million in 2005 and President Bush has proposed eliminating the program entirely next year.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced federal legislation last week that would prohibit states from spending Byrne grant money on drug task forces unless they adopt laws that prevent people from being convicted solely on the word of an informant or law enforcement officer. In addition, Texas passed a bill this legislative session that requires supervision and oversight of regional narcotics task forces by the state's Department of Public Safety.
"Even with the promising legislation passed here in Texas, the truth is that these task forces are systemically flawed," said Harrell. "They cannot operate in a way that comes close to administering fair and even-handed law enforcement. Task forces need to go. Period."
Tonight's meeting will take place at St. Emanuel Baptist Church, 200 South Navasota Street in Hearne. It will begin at 7 p.m.