Like many local police agencies, the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force (WANTF) receives federal grant money to make drug arrests. This year, WANTF has worked hard to combat the drug menace by conducting a record-setting raid of college kids who smoke pot. Then the commander of WANTF was found guilty of stealing $125,000 in seized drug funds for himself.
In February, WANTF completed a two-month investigation at the University of Alabama. One witness described teams of “officers wearing bulletproof vests with hand guns strapped to their thigh,” arresting 74 people, including 61 students, mostly for charges of sale and possession of small amounts of marijuana. The University newspaper, The Crimson White, reported the bust as a record number of arrests in one operation, according to Tuscaloosa Police Chief Steve Anderson. Those students all face “sanctions up to and including expulsion,” explained UA President Dr. Judy Bonner in a statement on the arrests.
As we’ve explained numerous times, the arrest for marijuana is usually the least troublesome aspect of a bust -- it’s being “in the system” as a “drug criminal” that creates the most problems for cannabis consumers. About half the people netted in that record bust in February are still in limbo, yet to see their cases resolved. Almost all of those arrested had their names printed in the newspaper story of the record bust. We don’t know how many were expelled, suspended or lost a scholarship. All who are convicted will lose any federal student aid. Many of them will have to check the “convicted of a crime” box when they seek employment. Others will face discrimination when the Google search of their name brings up the article and their mug shot photo.
Those mug shots, by the way, tell us an important fact about these marijuana arrests in black and white -- literally. Our recent survey of simple marijuana possession arrests in 2013 on a popular mug shot website shows almost twice as many black faces as non-black faces arrested in Tuscaloosa County. However, there are more than twice as many white people as black people living in the county and both groups use marijuana at roughly the same rates.
The marijuana arrests feed the grant machine that keeps paramilitary groups like WANTF funded. In 2004, Tuscaloosa News reported that WANTF began in 1988 with a $100,000 grant, which had to be matched by $100,000 in taxpayer funds from the city council. Then-Police Chief Ken Swindle (yes, really) bragged “It hasn’t cost the city… a dime since,” as WANTF was receiving a $310,600 grant.
Swindle explained the 2004 grant required the city to pitch in one-fourth that amount in matching funds. That $78,000 came from the cash and assets seized from earlier marijuana arrests. In 2011, another $210,000 grant funded WANTF with another $70,000 in asset forfeitures to match. Simply put, these grant matching funds incentivize drug task forces to make arrests to seize money to make money, not necessarily stop drugs. The more arrests they make, the more money they take, the bigger grants they get, and the more arrests they have to keep making for the money to keep flowing. In 2011, that was more than 1,500 people arrested by WANTF in just one Alabama county. In 2013, that meant sending armed teams of cops into college dorms to roust pot smokers.
When a one dollar seizure gets WANTF another four dollars in grants, eventually someone can’t resist the temptation of all that free money. The FBI began an investigation of WANTF’s books back in December 2012, coincidentally around the same time WANTF was sending in informants to snitch on college kids smoking pot at the University of Alabama. In May, the former commander of WANTF, Jeff Snyder, was found guilty of embezzling at least $125,000 of the funds WANTF seized between June 2010 and June 2012. According to a plea agreement that would get him just 18 months in prison, Snyder was simply “pocketing some or all of the funds seized during various arrests, and then failing to correctly account for those funds.”
The indictment doesn’t include the funds seized from those college kids in the record bust in February 2013, but even if Commander Hand-In-The-Cookie-Jar didn’t grab some for himself, who knows how many of the arresting cops did? According to court records, $9,498 was seized from 12 people, ten of them UA students who lost a total of $8,636. None of the rest of the 74 arrested seems to have a record of anything seized but pot and paraphernalia and the Tuscaloosa Police Department won’t comment.
The grant funding machine continues, with another report this week of “an overactive week for drug arrests” in Tuscaloosa. At least 20 people were jailed, with the most significant charges relating to marijuana trafficking by two of the men. The other 18 were charged with petty crimes like possession and drug paraphernalia. WANTF’s leadership refused to comment on the sudden surge in marijuana arrests.
This is a story of just one drug task force in one county in America. There are 258 more of them in this country just waiting to spend over $200 million to take down the cannabis consumer who boosts their arrest figures for the next grant application.