Nearly five years ago, the legal system committed a grave injustice against residents of the Texas Panhandle farming town of Tulia. An undercover lawman’s court testimony — uncorroborated by witnesses or any evidence — led to the arrests on drug charges of more than 40 people, nearly all of them black.
It was the case of a rogue cop, unsupervised and acting on behalf of a multi-agency drug task force. This month, one of the cities that contributed to the task force realized the error of its ways.
The city of Amarillo agreed to pay $5 million to the 46 people arrested in the infamous 1999 drug bust. Following that city’s lead, other communities that belonged to the drug task force are working on a settlement that could total another $1 million, the Amarillo Globe-News reported.
That money can’t begin to make up for the wrecked families and the loss of freedom the wrongly convicted Tulia residents suffered. But it can serve as a warning that municipalities can be held accountable for the actions of wayward law enforcement officers.
Just as significant as the monetary settlement is the fact that Amarillo is ending its role in the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, the entity responsible for the miscarriage of justice in Tulia. City officials conceded the task force system itself is flawed, and the city’s withdrawal will effectively end the task force.
Unfortunately, that won’t do much for those unjustly convicted in the discredited bust. Thirty-eight people received prison sentences. It took lawyers and activists until 2003 to free them, and Gov. Rick Perry eventually granted pardons to 35 of those convicted.
The lawman, Tom Coleman, was later discredited and faces perjury charges for testimony he gave in evidentiary hearings. As an example of how off-base his information was, one of the women arrested on Coleman’s word, Tonya White, was actually making a bank transaction in Oklahoma City at the time Coleman claimed she sold him drugs in Tulia.
At the time, however, Coleman had the backing of the Swisher County district attorney and sheriff. He was a part of the drug task force, which brings counties much-coveted federal law enforcement grants and even seized vehicles and cash. These task forces, which don’t answer directly to elected officials, have repeatedly violated Texans’ civil liberties.
“Texas’ 45 regional narcotics task forces (RNTFs) arrest the lowest level drug offenders using tactics that encourage corruption and false accusation,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas reported in December 2002. The ACLU recommended disbanding all the task forces and using their $200 million in funding for other uses.
The Tulia victims can’t regain the years they lost because of a corrupt law enforcement officer. But disbanding of the Panhandle drug task force will prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future. Other communities should consider doing the same with their drug task forces. There are better ways for law enforcement officers to spend their time and effort.