Senate Committee To Review Drug Task Forces

Senate Committee To Review Drug Task Forces

By Phil Williams. CREATED Nov 19, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Have Tennessee drug task forces lost their way?

That's the question lawmakers will be asking Wednesday as a Senate subcommittee tackles the hot-button issue of whether the state's drug task forces are serving their intended purpose.

It follows continuing questions raised by NewsChannel 5's award-winning "Policing for Profit" investigation.

"There have been many allegations of policing for profit, and it's up to us in the legislature to investigate these issues and to come to some sort of conclusions about them," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown.

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing will be at 9 a.m. at Legislative Plaza. It is open to the public.

Out on Tennessee's interstates, drug task force officers will tell you they're fighting a war.

"I will do everything I can to take that money out of the hands of those drug dealers and the cartel," said Williamson County DA Kim Helper, who oversees the 21st Judicial District Drug Task Force.

Yet, some lawmakers have become concerned that, as our investigation discovered, those task forces have now become heavily dependent on the cash they can take off of drivers.

Back in 2011, NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Dickson Police Chief Rick Chandler -- who sits on the 23rd Judicial District Drug Task Force board -- about that perception.

"So if these officers out on the interstate don't come up with cash, then they might lose their jobs?" we asked.

"Well, it's a possibility, yes," Chandler acknowledged.

The result, our investigation found, is that task forces have been more likely to watch the lanes where drug money might be heading back to Mexico -- instead of trying to stop the drugs coming in.

"It shows that the police are really focusing, not on trying to get the drugs, not on trying to enforce the drug laws and stop that flow throughout the country -- they're focused on getting the money," said Scott Bullock with the Institute for Justice.

The group opposes civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to take money and other property without ever charging the property holder with a crime.

To find that money, our investigation discovered, they must stop lots of out-of-state drivers -- most of them innocent.

Dashcam video obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates shows a supervisor from the 23rd Drug Task Force coaching an officer on how to convince a driver to consent to a search.

"Play it off like he's one of us. "Hey, if you could do us a favor, if I get another search out of the way, I get to go to lunch,'" the supervisor said.

Another video shows where the 23rd stopped two Hispanic men in an SUV with Texas plates, supposedly on the suspicion that it was weaving.

"Hey, the reason I stopped you was you were coming outside your lane of travel," that same supervisor said. "I don't know if you're getting sleepy or -- you're not drinking are you?"

Yet, we had been watching from Sky5HD, and the driver never weaved once.

Then, there are the innocent victims like Carmina Perez, who had $15,OOO that she was taking back to her family in Mexico. It was taken from her by the 24th District drug task force based on the agent's suspicion that it might be drug money.

"I told him I had been saving that money for months and months and months and this is what I'm going to use it for," Perez recalled.

"He kept calling me a liar. He kept saying that we Mexicans we all have a reputation of being drug smugglers, that that's what I was going to use it for. I kept telling him no."

NewsChannel 5 also documented cases where one man had $22,000 taken from him by Monterey police under questionable circumstances and another where a man had $160,000 taken from him by the 23rd.

Both eventually got their money back. In the $160,000 case, it took more than a year.

When the hearing convenes, senators will hear from state auditors and from the task forces themselves.

But those innocent victims will not be called to tell their side of the story.

Back to NC5 Investigates: Policing for Profit
NewsChannel 5 Investigates

Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team. His investigations have earned him journalism's highest honors.