Democrats Pick Pork over Police Accountability


Last week, police in Kentucy went on a 24-hour drug raid blitz, where they…

…discovered 23 meth labs, seized more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana, identified 16 drug endangered children and arrested 565 individuals in connection with illegal drug use in a 24-hour period.

What inspired this sudden burst of drug war aggressiveness? Complaints from the citizenry? A vicious string of drug-related murders? A series of overdoses?

None of that. Seems they were concerned that the federal government is about to turn off the spigot.

During "Operation Byrne Blitz," which took place Wednesday, 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 Byrne Grant is problematic for a lot of reasons. But chief among them is the way it warps police priorities by tying drug arrests to the federal teat, reinforcing the disastrous numbers game Ed Burns spoke about in my interview with him last week. Byrne Grants exacerbate the militarization of the drug war, too. If you've got an expensive-to-maintain SWAT team, you can earn some easy federal money by sending them out to bust up a low-level drug offender a few times a week. Actually arresting the perpetrators of violent crimes that aren't drug related doesn't bring in the cash.

Byrne Grants have been blamed for a lot of drug war disasters, including the clusterfuck of wrongful arrests in Tulia, Texas, which were then followed by similar outrages across that state. It led to Texas eventually abolishing the multi-jurisdictional (and unaccountable) drug task forces largely funded with Byrne Grants.

In a rare case of passing some sensible crime policy, the GOP Congress started phasing out Byrne grants in the 1990s, a trend that has continued through the Bush administration. It's a good idea. Even if you support 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. They want to bring back Byrne grants in full force. One leading senate proponent of re-funding the grants is, unfortunately, Democratic presidential frontrunner Barack Obama.

Back to the story in Kentucky:

"The impact of our drug task forces can be clearly seen in the success of this one-day blitz," said Justice and Public Safety Secretary J. Michael Brown. "While combining these efforts in a 24-hour period makes a statement, it's important to remember that these types of activities go on every day, and are a critical tool in eradicating illegal use."

Adds Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin:

"Every year the Byrne grants are slashed, we run the risk of keeping more drugs and criminals on the street,"

But if police in Kentucky can go out and find 2,400 pounds of marijuana in 24-hours just to make a political statement, isn't that a pretty good indication that the grants aren't working?