Burn the Byrne

Pork-addicted Democrats are reviving a flawed anti-crime program.

Last month, police in Kentucky went on a 24-hour drug raid blitz. According to local media accounts, the raids uncovered 23 methamphetamine labs, seized more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana, identified 16 drug-endangered children and arrested 565 people for illegal drug use.

That's quite a day's work.

What inspired the blitz? Complaints from the citizenry? A vicious string of drug-related murders? An outbreak of overdoses?

No, none of that.

It seems that they were concerned that the federal government is about to turn off the funding spigot.

"During 'Operation Byrne Blitz,'" a local television station reported, "state police and highway patrol agencies, local police and sheriff's departments, and drug task forces throughout the country conducted undercover investigations, marijuana eradication efforts and drug interdiction activities. The collaborative effort, named for the federal grant program which funds many of the anti-drug efforts, underscored the impact that cuts to this funding could have on local and statewide drug enforcement."

The federal grant they're referring to, the Byrne Grant, is problematic for a lot of reasons. Chief among them is the way it warps police priorities by tying drug arrests to the federal teat.

The grants are often tied to arrest statistics, which encourage police officers to target low-level drug offenders instead of major dealers and suppliers. The grants often create multi-jurisdictional "drug task forces," which—because their authority extends across several counties—many times aren't directly accountable to anyone.

It was a Byrne-funded task force in Tulia, Texas, for example, that in 1999 arrested and prosecuted 46 people of drug crimes based on the word of an undercover police informant later found to have fabricated evidence.

Another task force wrongfully arrested and prosecuted 28 people in Hearne, Texas the next year, this time based on the word of a criminal police informant. In fact, the situation got so bad in Texas that the state eventually banned multi-jurisdictional drug task forces.

Because most Byrne grants are also tied directly to drug arrests, they encourage local police departments to use their manpower and resources on nonviolent drug offenses instead of more serious crimes like rape, robbery, or murder.

Surprisingly, it was the Republican-led Congress that started phasing out Byrne grants in the 1990s, a trend that has continued through the Bush administration, though they haven't yet been eliminated completely.

It's a good idea.

Even if you happen to be a supporter of the drug war, these grants do little to help fight it, and only serve to make local police departments less accountable and less transparent. Even the White House Office of Management and Budget has been sharply critical of the program.

Unfortunately, Congressional Democrats (and many Republicans) can't resist the easy, positive publicity that comes with a press release announcing the procurement of federal crime-fighting pork for the local police department.

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  • herodotus||

    Radley Balko is the best libertarian ever.

    Issues like this are what libertarianism should be about.

    Why not leave the anti-war effort to the gazillions of idealistic liberal types who will be anti-war no matter what, and concentrate on this shit?

    Intelligent, literate criticism of the drug war, divorced from special pleading hippies who end every sentence with '.....man'.

    The chances of ending this drug war in the near future would be slim, even if the meager collected resources of libertarianism were completely concentrated on that one target.

    But when half of those resources are spent supporting an already thriving anti-war movement, those chances dwindle down to nothing.

    Focus people!

  • Taktix®||

    One leading senate proponent of re-funding the grants is, unfortunately, Democratic presidential frontrunner Barack Obama.

    Let's hear everyone say how they will tolerate Obama's socialist economic views in exchange for a better track record on civil liberties.

    Better on civil liberties my... aching... ass...

  • Rhywun||

    No politician who supports this crap is going to earn my vote. Oh well, guess it's back to not voting.

  • ||

    better than Mcain...

  • ||

    Maybe we need a Marijuana Political Party! At least that would get some attention on the mainstream media, especially if it raised a great deal of Grass Roots money:)

  • ||

    I think I'm going to be sick

  • LarryA||

    In fact, the situation got so bad in Texas that the state eventually banned multi-jurisdictional drug task forces.

    Good Lord. If even we get it right, how hard can it be?

  • ||

    But here's a different possibility: If police in Kentucky can go out and find 2,400 pounds of marijuana in 24-hours anytime they want, just to make a political statement, that might be a pretty good sign that the grants-and the drug war in general-aren't working.

    Here's a third possibility. Law enforcement authorities tolerated dangerous criminal activity to continue while allowing children to remain in dangerous situations*, just so they could get extra news coverage for their one day blitz.

    * Law enforcement boilerplate language, not necessarily agreed to by me.

  • ||

    Do these Byrne grants all have the same date of expiry? We just had a major drug enforcement sweep here on Long Island. I'm sure there's no connection...

  • ||

    I thought Obama was the go to guy for the drug vote, looks like there's no candidate for the election that stands for a sensible policy on the war on non-pc drugs anymore.

  • JimmyChanga||

    Reinmoose | April 15, 2008, 8:57am | #
    I think I'm going to be sick

    Is that nausea? 'Cause I got something for that.

  • The Democratic Republican||

    where is joe to defend his good friend Obama? I need someone to remind why he is the Savior of American Politics.

  • Elemenope||

    Instead of whining like bitches y'all might actually do some good by writing to Obama's campaign telling *him* that you will not support any candidate that supports predatory drug-war grants. (I already did.)

    Or would that be too pro-active for you?

  • Johnny Wishbone||

    the situation got so bad in Texas that the state eventually banned multi-jurisdictional drug task forces.

    What am I supposed to do now?

  • The Chief of Police||

    It's high time we formed a joint task force to smoke out the drug offenders with a grass-roots effort under the Weed and Seed program. Our officers are in hale and hearty shape, and we do bequeath all of our best efforts to . . .


  • ||

    Excellent article Mr. Balko. The failure of the drug war aside, it's also been my observation that Byrne grants have been instrumental in the militarization of police forces across the country and the rise of the thug mentality that accompanies it.

  • Blake Dewitt||

    Can anyone explain the D/R split here? Why are the Dems in favor of this? Why are the Reps opposed? Something is missing here. I'm sure Radley will get to the bottom of it.


    Drug..."warrior"? Real warriors ,throughout history , usually choose not to fight losing battles,or lost causes.But then, these jackbooted taskthugs ,are not really warriors,are they? Just simple minded bureaucrats with machine guns...cool.

  • ||

    Do these Byrne grants all have the same date of expiry? We just had a major drug enforcement sweep here on Long Island. I'm sure there's no connection...

    Ding ding ding... we have a winner!

    Can anyone explain the D/R split here? Why are the Dems in favor of this? Why are the Reps opposed?

    If I were to hazard a guess, it would have something to do with the federal government unnecessarily meddling in the operations of state and local police departments, which could be seen as a greater move toward nationalizing police. I know some Republicans wouldn't mind such a thing, but the state's rights angle is the best thing I can think of.

  • ||

    Given the history of many of our elites becoming wealthy on outlawed substances, I don't believe for a minute that the drug war is about preventing drug abuse.
    The only sensible conclusion one can reach is that the drug war is about propping up black market drug profits.
    The drug war is just another gang of thugs at work guarding their territory and eradicating competition.

  • Jordan 6 Rings||


  • Nike Dunk SB High||

    is good


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