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DPS contribution to border operation drug seizures was modest

Touting the successes of its latest border security surge in the Rio Grande Valley earlier this year, the Department of Public Safety told state lawmakers that in just six months Operation Strong Safety had taken nearly 150 tons of illegal drugs off the streets.

When state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, specifically asked for DPS’ contribution to the operation’s drug interdiction efforts, the agency would not supply that information, saying that its cooperation with other law enforcement agencies made judging success based on one agency’s contribution “invalid.”

But data obtained and analyzed by the American-Statesman shows that according to its own numbers, DPS contributed less than 10 percent to the latest surge’s drug interdiction efforts, with the rest of the drug seizures coming from other law enforcement agencies, including those funded by the federal government, particularly the U.S. Border Patrol.

The number is based on detailed drug seizure and traffic stop information provided to the newspaper in response to public information requests.

Blanco, a former military intelligence analyst, said the figure raises questions about how forthright DPS has been with state legislators contemplating a historic increase in border security spending.

DPS Director Steve McCraw has “failed in his duty to provide vital information to the legislative body at a time when important budgetary decisions were being made,” Blanco said.Hundreds of millions of tax dollars are at stake, and lawmakers should have answers from agencies.”

The newspaper’s examination of the agency data also showed that by many of DPS’ own productivity measures, troopers’ activity along the border is lower than other parts of the state. The number of closed criminal investigations there, for example, dropped 50 percent between 2009 and 2014 — the steepest dip of any region of the state.

Since 2009, DPS troopers in the Rio Grande Valley and the rest of the border also issued fewer drug charges after traffic stops compared to the rest of the state. In 2014, for example, the Panhandle region had 2,520 traffic stops that resulted in drug charges — five times more than the Rio Grande Valley, despite fewer troopers stationed in the area.

DPS officials declined to explain the numbers, but security experts consulted by the American-Statesman said they could reflect drug distribution patterns in urban areas such as Houston, Dallas and Austin, where more drivers may be stopped with smaller quantities of drugs. Indeed, seizure data show average busts in border counties tend to be much larger than those in and around large cities.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger did not dispute the numbers. But he said the paper’s findings were “missing the big picture” and stressed that Operation Strong Safety was initiated at the request of state leaders to stem the illegal flow of drugs and people and to deter cartel activity.

“Texas leaders did not direct the department to issue more traffic citations or warnings, seize drugs or make arrests,” Vinger said in an email. He added that trying to identify DPS’ specific contribution to drug seizure numbers was “like trying to determine if a basketball team won a game by asking the point guard how many points he scored.”

“Numbers do not secure the border,” he wrote.

Presented with the newspaper’s findings, Gov. Greg Abbott remains committed to “his comprehensive border security plan, which will add resources along the border to put the cartels and gangs that are importing crime and violence to our state out of business,” said spokeswoman Amelia Chasse.

Yet some lawmakers have argued that with DPS on the verge of getting a historic budget increase — much of it to be spent on extending the border surge — it is reasonable and essential to ask if taxpayer money is being spent effectively.

“We must examine whether this operation, at the local, state and federal levels, has had the desired effect of further protecting the Texas border or if state officials should re-examine the use of taxpayer funds for this operation,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, wrote in a letter last month. “Additionally, we must disaggregate the state and local efforts from federal efforts to determine whether the state’s use of additional funds did in fact further secure the Texas-Mexico border.”

On Monday, Castro said the numbers from the Statesman’s analysis “raise troubling questions about DPS’ ability to honestly assess and communicate the effectiveness of its border operations. Steve McCraw must stop padding numbers to justify the whim of state Republican leaders. Texas taxpayers deserve much better.”

Defining success elusive

DPS launched the latest version of Operation Strong Safety last June in response to a flood of mostly Central American children crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley (an earlier three-week version, which included controversial roadside checkpoints, took place in 2013). In the operation’s first six months, the state spent just over $100 million to mass DPS troopers, Texas game wardens and Texas National Guard soldiers near the border in Hidalgo and Starr counties in an attempt to thwart human and drug smuggling.

The agency has said the continuing demands of the border operations have compromised its activity in other parts of the state and that it needs to hire hundreds more troopers. The Texas Senate has approved more than $800 million in additional funding over the next two years to expand the state’s border operation and make it permanent. The House has approved more than $500 million. A compromise likely will land somewhere in between those figures.

Critics of the buildup have questioned how additional DPS troopers contribute to an already large law enforcement presence along the 1,254-mile boundary between Texas and Mexico. The number of U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley has doubled over the past decade to more than 3,000 in 2014.

Both DPS and state leaders have struggled to define a successful surge operation. As the American-Statesman reported in July, state and federal border protection initiatives over the years have been described as successful in a variety of sometimes contradictory ways: for their ability to intercept more drugs and people, finding fewer drugs and people, or simply a sense among locals that they are safe.

Most recently, in a January report to the Legislature and governor, DPS said success would be achieved only “when all smuggling events between the ports of entry are detected and interdicted.”

In an attempt to assess DPS’ specific performance during the border surge, Blanco in March wondered what the agency had accomplished during the surge separate from U.S. Border Patrol’s seizure and arrest numbers. But when he asked for DPS-only drug apprehensions during the operation, the agency responded instead with drug seizure information that combined efforts of state, local and federal agencies.

Late last week, nearly two months after his initial request, Blanco received a letter from DPS saying the agency would release DPS-specific drug seizure information and other data “if you are interested.” His background as an intelligence analyst “provides you with a unique understanding of joint operations and unified command structures, and we have been authorized to share some very specific, classified information,” McCraw wrote.

Even so, Vinger said the drug seizure information was not a reliable measure of DPS’ performance. “Using one participating law enforcement agency’s outputs from Operation Strong Safety to evaluate the operation’s effectiveness is completely invalid,” he wrote. “The effectiveness of the operation is a function of all participating agencies working together under a unified command structure.”

Some experts disagreed. The numbers showing DPS’ modest contribution to drug interdiction suggest that “the return on investment doesn’t seem to be beneficial to the taxpayers of Texas,” said Victor Manjarrez, a former Border Patrol supervisor who is the associate director of the University of Texas at El Paso’s National Center for Border Security and Immigration. “Is it really worth the resources being put into it? At this point I really question that.”

The newspaper’s examination also showed that nearly all DPS enforcement activity has dropped in recent years. After reaching a high of 3 million total traffic stops in 2011, for example, troopers made fewer than 2.3 million stops in Texas last year, even as the state’s population surged. The number of drug charges resulting from all stops also has generally fallen during that period.

Yet the trends were most pronounced in the border region. The Rio Grande Valley region, for example, was the only part of the state to show an actual decline in per-trooper drug arrests since 2009.

Vinger, the DPS spokesman, said it was not the agency’s job to analyze such trends. “We report the facts,” he wrote. “We don’t speculate on causes.”

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