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Correspondent Saturday, 1 March, 2003, 12:33 GMT
Texas narcotics investigations flawed
Tom Coleman
Tom Coleman wrote his drug busting notes on his leg
Tom Mangold

Correspondent's Tom Mangold exclusively interviews a "gypsy-cop" at the centre of yet another drugs related outrage, exposing the shortcomings of the Texas drugs investigation system.

Open in new window : Texas undercover
Picture gallery of life in Tulia, Texas

Tom Coleman is a "gypsy-cop" - one of a breed of law enforcement officers unique to Texas.

"Gypsy-cops" roam the state looking for short contract employment with small impoverished local police forces.

They work undercover, with no community loyalty or involvement.

Coleman was single-handedly responsible for the arrest of 46 people, most of them black, during an undercover drugs bust in the tiny Texas town of Tulia in July 1999.

Barbara Markham, former narcotics detective
Barbara Markham could not believe the way Coleman worked
Coleman worked without a partner, without a tape recorder, without video back-up, without using finger print evidence and without a notebook.

He explained: "I would write them [his notes] on my leg or on the part of my arm where I kept my sleeve down, cause I can't loose my leg like I can a little piece of paper inside the vehicle."

These were highly unusual ways of operating according to former narcotics detective Barbara Markham.

She explained: "I've never seen anyone work an undercover investigation like Tom Coleman did.

"Wearing a wire comes with the job. The Feds do it, many narcotics units do it. It's part of gathering your evidence.

Tulia town centre
Tulia feels a little like Birmingham Alabama in the 60s
Coleman admits mistakes

Tania White was one of Coleman's mistakes on the Tulia case.

In court she faced a 99-year prison sentence, but at the time when Coleman swore she was selling him drugs, she happened to be hundreds of miles away in Oklahoma, signing a deposit slip with a cheque for $8.

Coleman said: "That could have been a typo, but Tania White did sell me drugs, I handwrote the notes and I handed them to a secretary to be typed."

Tania White's case was dismissed

For the first time, Coleman has admitted he made mistakes in his investigations.

He said: "I did what I was told, I did my job and I believe I did it very well. In fact with a few mistakes, but you're gonna have mistakes in everything that people do."

Jurors' chairs
White jurors outnumbered black in the Tulia case
But these mistakes have, in turn, shown up deficiencies with laws surrounding the workings of Narcotics Task Forces.

Targeting the poor

The problem began under President Reagan.

The system was created to help deal with the ever-growing drugs problem as it spread from the cities to the rural areas.

Federal grants established Regional Drugs Task Forces for counter-narcotics operations in the smaller towns.

The Task Forces are virtually autonomous.

And the continued financing of the scheme depends on results, and on numbers of arrests rather than their quality.

And how better to keep the numbers up, than 'invade' small, depressed farming communities and arrest those at the bottom of the social scale.

These would usually be blacks or Hispanics, and those who might find it easier to plead guilty than fight the case and risk draconian Texas law.

Trials would often be in front of local majority white juries.

Laws under scrutiny

Scott Hensen, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas
Scott Hensen believes Tuila has marked a turning point
But, Scott Hensen, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas says that the Reagan experiment must now end.

He explained: "Tulia has been a watershed. It has reinvigorated the civil rights movement in my opinion.

"The vast majority of people in prison for drugs are black. There's a reason for that, and Tulia has brought that into a clear crystal view for the whole country."

Fortunately, the State of Texas has at last begun to look at the laws surrounding the workings of its Narcotics Task Forces.

And, under the constant spotlight of each new investigation, new laws are being considered to make sure that soon, there will be guardians to guard the guardians.

The Regional Task Force has refused to answer any questions whatsoever regarding the controversial aspects of the Tulia operation.

But Texas has passed "The Tulia Law" requiring corroboration in undercover investigations.

The FBI are now investigating the Tulia drug busts but Coleman remains unrepentant working as a gas pipe fitter.

Texas - undercover was broadcast on BBC Two on Sunday, 2 March, 2003 at 1915 GMT.
Tom Coleman
Coleman wrote his notes on his leg and arm
Barbara Markham, undercover detective
"I've never seen anyone work an undercover investigation like Coleman did"
See also:

20 Feb 03 | Country profiles
08 Feb 03 | Americas
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