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.

Congress is now discussing bringing back Byrne grants in full force. One leading senate proponent of re-funding the grants is, unfortunately, Democratic presidential frontrunner Barack Obama.

But let's go back to Kentucky.

Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Secretary J. Michael Brown told one local media outlet of the Byrne-grant bltiz, "The impact of our drug task forces can be clearly seen in the success of this one-day blitz. 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."

That's one way of looking at it.

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.

Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason.