'Cowboy' Tactics, Limited Oversight: How Missouri's Drug Task Forces Avoid Accountability | St. Louis Public Radio

'Cowboy' Tactics, Limited Oversight: How Missouri's Drug Task Forces Avoid Accountability

Dec 31, 2019

Editor's note: This story is part of a collaborative-reporting initiative supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. All stories can be found here.

Missouri’s federally funded multi-jurisdictional drug task forces often go by macho names like Mustang, Comet and Nitro. They buy flashy electronic equipment such as Stingray surveillance gear and military paraphernalia. But some of the most colorful task forces have dodged accountability, failed to hold required public meetings and used what critics call “cowboy tactics.”

Court records show that Missouri’s federally funded drug task forces have often failed to set up required oversight commissions, failed to hold oversight meetings in public and repeatedly failed to respond to Sunshine Act requests for public information. 

Some of the task forces operating in secret have abused their power, critics say, by using coercive tactics, buying expensive surveillance equipment and focusing extensively on marijuana instead of more dangerous drugs.

St. Louis’s drug task force claimed for months that it didn’t exist. The Comet drug task force in Missouri's Ozarks region withheld records based on a terrorism exception to Sunshine Law. The Nitro task force in northwest Missouri claimed it didn’t have to respond to the Sunshine records requests because it is a federal agency, not a state one. The Mustang unit, in mid-Missouri, claimed it couldn’t be taken to court at all. St. Louis County’s task force failed to keep minutes of required meetings.

In addition, there are allegations of abusive tactics, including:

  • When a task force officer in mid-Missouri died of a gunshot wound at a fellow officer’s home, the task force refused to turn over records to the officer’s mother until a court forced it to eight years later. 
  • A video from a National Guard helicopter shows Mustang task force officers chasing a suspect and, once they subdued the suspect, kicking and tasing him.
  • Defense lawyers accuse the St. Charles County task force of abusing civil asset forfeiture by conducting coercive interrogations of suspects at a towing company lot and pressuring the suspects to sign over ownership of cash in their car.

Supporters of federally funded multi-jurisdictional drug task forces defend them as a model of federal, state and local cooperation. They say they are well-suited for the “war on drugs,” which is inherently an interstate problem that affects individual communities. The federal funding targets the connection between violence and drug trafficking.

The 18 Missouri task forces — down from 28 in 2013 — are typically squads of about a dozen officers from neighboring sheriff’s departments who focus on drug enforcement. The task forces receive federal Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants from the Justice Department and additional state dollars from the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Drug task force members use alert dogs to help them determine if someone they've pulled over has been in contact with drugs.
Credit Brian Munoz

Congress created the Byrne program in 1988. The federal money is intended for “critical funding necessary to support a range of program areas including law enforcement, prosecution and court, prevention and education, corrections and community corrections, drug treatment and enforcement.”

Federal funding for the program has risen and fallen. It was at a low point at the end of President George W. Bush’s administration, but President Barack Obama's administration increased funding significantly, with a boost from Vice President Joe Biden. The 18 task forces currently receiving funding Missouri got $4.7 million in 2019.

The funds are a welcome addition to local law enforcement budgets, said local police and prosecutors. Sheriff Kevin C. Bond of Pettis County said an increase in funding for the task force he heads will help provide a long-awaited cost-of-living raise for his employees. 

Bond said his drug task force always has operated openly. St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Timothy Lohmar said in an interview that one reason the St. Charles task force tries to avoid publicity is that officers are working undercover, often with confidential informants.

Lawsuits over accountability

It took a six-year legal crusade by David Roland, a libertarian lawyer, and Aaron Malin, then a pro-marijuana law student, to open up the federally funded task forces to the public.

They have a “cowboy state of mind,” said Roland, who filed multiple lawsuits in Missouri to make the task forces more accountable. “You have to see the logos they devise for themselves. These are people who are very confident in what they are doing. They have very flashy names, flashy logos. They seem utterly dismissive of the humanity of the people they are investigating.”

Roland and his wife, Jenifer Zeigler Roland, run the public-interest Freedom Center, a liberatarian-conservative group. Malin was director of research for Show-Me Cannibis

An increase in federal funding for the task force in Pettis County will help provide a long-awaited cost-of-living raise for his employees, the sheriff said.

Malin, now a lawyer, found “no supervision, in a lot of cases, no oversight board," he said. "A lot of money was being spent on things related to cryptology, license plate readers, decryption devices for iPhone and Android devices. There was also Stringray, a highway interceptor that can simulate a cellphone tower and capture information on cellphones from innocent and guilty persons alike.”

Radley Balko, who blogs about criminal justice for the Washington Post, has criticized the task forces for contributing to the militarization of American police forces. He also has criticized them for dodging public accountability

Balko points to unjustified mass drug arrests by multi-jurisdictional task forces as proof of their abuse of power. By way of example, Balko writes about 28 African Americans arrested on drug charges in Hearne, Texas, in 2000, and 46 African Americans arrested in Tulia, Texas. Courts dismissed most of the charges because they were based on sloppy police work, including unreliable informants. 

Denying its own existence

Roland and Malin began filing Sunshine Act requests for task force records five years ago.

“Half of 28 drug task forces refused to respond at all,” Roland recalled in an interview. “They said, ‘We are not subject to the Sunshine Law.’ These are very powerful law enforcement entities. They operate in the dark an awful lot.”

The St. Louis drug task force denied its existence. Malin filed a Sunshine Act request in 2013. Mark Lawson, attorney manager for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, responded that the department “does not have” a “St. Louis Metro Drug Task Force.” Maybe Malin was confusing St. Louis with St. Louis County, Lawson suggested.

Malin renewed the request, pointing out the Missouri Highway Patrol listed the task force and its telephone number. Lawson responded that the phone number “was just reassigned to someone else” and added, “I’m not sure how I can present records of the non-existence of something.”

Several weeks later, Lawson wrote Malin to say he had taken up the question with the police chief, who “doesn’t know what the Missouri Highway Patrol could have been referencing.”

But records obtained from the Missouri Department of Public Safety show there was an SLMPD drug task force. It also showed that then-Chief Samuel Dotson was the project manager and Lawson himself the “authorized official” in charge of receiving $200,000 in federal money.

“Wouldn’t you know, the person who signed those documents for the St. Louis drug task force was the attorney who told Aaron (Malin) it didn’t exist?” Roland said.

Lawson maintained the department didn’t use the term “task force” but referred to the group by the federal name, the “Ed Byrne” grant. 

St. Louis Circuit Judge Mark H. Neill ordered the city to turn over the requested records last year. Neill determined that Lawson’s initial denials weren’t purposeful because of the name confusion, and thus didn’t warrant a hefty fine. Roland scoffs at that explanation because Lawson was experienced and had signed doxens of documents to receive the grant.

'The St. Louis County drug task force meetings were never more than three or four minutes long, and they would dispense checks and leave.' - David Roland

Roland notes that police and drug task forces have enormous budgets. “The St. Louis Metro police department paid for most of its ... new headquarters with forfeiture money. They paid in the neighborhood of $2 million from forfeitures, and they still have plenty left over.”

The St. Louis County Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Task Force also broke open-records law by holding public meetings for years without proper notice and fabricating minutes of those meetings. 

“The St. Louis County drug task force … meetings were never more than three or four minutes long, and they would dispense checks and leave,” Roland said.

Malin’s suit against the county led to a consent decree requiring the county task force to comply with the law by posting proper notices and compiling minutes of the meetings.

Nitro and Mustang

When Malin telephoned the Nitro task force in northwest Missouri, those answering the phone denied belonging to the task force. Eventually, Nitro told Malin it was not a state governmental body subject to the Sunshine Law because it was attached to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. So, it claimed it didn’t have to turn over records.

The Mustang task force operating out of Cole County in mid-Missouri at first refused to search for the records Malin requested and later put up a long, unsuccessful legal battle to withhold records.

Former Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson initially said Malin’s requests were too burdensome and refused to look for the documents. Malin brought in Roland and the ACLU of Missouri, but Richardson ignored them as well.

Finally, Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia S. Joyce ruled that Richardson had “purposely” refused to comply with the Sunshine Law and ordered a record-setting $12,000 penalty plus $28,000 in attorneys' fees

Hiding records for a decade

Melissa Winnie, a member of the East Central Drug Task Force, died of a gunshot wound at another officer’s home in 2008 in Audrain County. The sheriff said it was a suicide, but the circumstances were suspicious. Winnie had filed a formal complaint with her department a year earlier about sexual harassment. After the shooting, Winnie’s mother, Joanna, tried to get police records, but authorities refused to turn them over, saying that there was an ongoing investigation and that Winnie’s sexual harassment complaint was a personnel matter.

“Even as late as eight years after her death, they were telling me the request was denied because the case was open,” said Malin, though there was no evidence of a continuing investigation.

Finally, Malin, Roland and the ACLU sued for the records. Last year, about a decade after her death, Winnie’s mother received the records at the order of Audrain County Circuit Judge Rachel Bringer Shepherd, who found the evidence “uncontroverted” that the investigations were inactive. 

In mid-Missouri, Mustang task force detectives Michael Chinn and Kip Bartlett went to Timothy Whittle’s house in 2014 to serve a warrant. Whittle drove off, and the officers pursued. At the end of the chase, Whittle put up his hands and lay on the ground. Bartlett sat on him and held his wrists. A Missouri National Guard helicopter captured what happened next. With the camera rolling from above, Chinn appeared to kick Whittle in the head and tase him. Chinn said he acted because of Whittle’s “furtive” moves. The Kansas City Star published the video, and it went viral. Mustang settled a lawsuit filed by Whittle in 2017.

Marijuana centric

Roland and Malin found the drug task forces focused inordinately on marijuana. When they began obtaining records in 2014, Malin and Roland discovered eight of the 28 task forces then in operation had brought more charges against people for marijuana crimes than for any other drug violation. Nitro, Mustang, St. Charles County and St. Louis city were among the eight.

Sheriff Bond of Pettis County defends the prominence of marijuana enforcement. He cited the potency of today’s marijuana and also the different community standards in rural Missouri.

Some of the literature law enforcement officers use to inform how to evaluate a suspect's condition when they're pulled over.
Credit Mimi Wright

“If you have a conservative community that wants their law enforcement agencies to consider that a priority, then those priorities are going to be met. I try to have a good handle on what my community’s perception is of drugs ... and then I try to tailor our law enforcement around those feelings of the community. Our community remains pretty conservative and sees drugs as a scourge. Crime doesn’t occur in a vacuum.”

Roland and Malin say their legal crusade has had several positive results. Missouri law now clearly establishes that task forces have to respond to Sunshine Act requests. In addition, task forces are much better at announcing regular meetings, posting agendas and keeping public meeting minutes.

In addition, they point out that the number of federally funded task forces has declined since they began their accountability crusade, shrinking from 28 to 18. That’s a small step forward, they say.

William H. Freivogel is a professor at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Journalism and a lawyer. Mimi Wright is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

Mimi Wright is a senior journalism student at the University of Missouri with an emphasis in magazine writing. She is also pursuing a German language degree and a certificate in digital global studies. She has interests in music, education, immigration and international reporting and has previously interned at Spindle magazine in London.