A week before submitting a performance report on its border operations to Texas lawmakers, the Department of Public Safety changed how it calculates the value of drug seizures, dramatically increasing the estimated value of the drugs seized during the effort.
Agency officials touted the numbers as evidence their expanded border operations were working, as they seek more money for border security.
The agency now uses 2012 data based on national retail sales compiled by the White House; it previously had used 2014 Drug Enforcement wholesale prices specific to Texas.
As a result of the new accounting methodology, the agency said that more than $1.8 billion in illegal drugs had been seized during Operation Strong Safety, the state’s enhanced law enforcement effort in the Rio Grande Valley that began last summer.
Under its previous illegal drug price formula, the seizures would have been worth about $161 million, less than one-tenth of the figure presented to the Legislature and state leaders.
The new retail numbers, which some criminologists advise against using, first appeared in a Jan. 21 weekly report of Operation Strong Safety activities produced by DPS. A week later, DPS included the higher number in its legislative report of Strong Safety performance measures.
DPS officials said they adopted the drug prices provided by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in order to “address the inconsistency in prices being used to report local, state and federal” illegal drug seizures in Texas, said DPS spokesman Tom Vinger.
“There is value in using pricing data from an independent national-level agency,” Vinger said.
The change comes as state leaders seek to further expand DPS’s border operations. Both the House and Senate are proposing spending hundreds of millions of dollars on border security operations in the 2016-17 biennium. The Senate’s base budget includes $815 million compared with the House’s $392.7 million. The Senate proposal is more than the previous seven years of state spending on the border combined.
DPS Director Steven McCraw said in an interview Thursday the White House numbers are “superior to anything out there” and don’t inflate the value of seizures.
“Actually these numbers look worse if you really look at it (because of) the price points,” McCraw said. “In Texas we actually deflated the numbers a little bit so we wouldn’t be questioned as to were we trying to make the numbers higher.”
In a clarifying statement Thursday evening, DPS officials said that national retail prices “are a more accurate reflection” of how drugs are sold on the street and that the agency could have used an even higher purity percentage to increase the retail price.
But many criminologists say describing bulk seizures with retail-level prices presents a skewed picture of the value of the drugs when they were seized.
Peter Reuter, a senior economist with the RAND Corporation and criminology professor at the University of Maryland, said wholesale prices better measure the impact of the seizures on criminal organizations. “It’s more important to get a sense of the cost you have imposed on the traffickers,” he said. “But (higher retail prices) sound better. I don’t think it’s more complicated than that.”
Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of Operations Research and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said many law enforcement agencies use retail prices because they are higher, but that “it would be more logical to value at the replacement cost for the organization.”
Informed of the change in accounting methods on drug seizure values, Sen. Jane Nelson, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement: “Moving forward, it is important that we have reliable data to evaluate the degree to which these problems are being mitigated with our investment in border security.”
Sen. Kirk Watson, part of a bipartisan chorus of Senate budget writers who called on Monday for an official definition of “border security,” said that while there may be “good, legitimate answers,” the formula change raised questions.
“It adds to the problem when it seems like whatever metrics you might have actually change, and it continues to subvert the credibility of requests when you can’t seem to get straight answers, so I’m disappointed,” Watson said. “People that are advocating for this sort of expenditure have a special obligation to help the public understand what their money is being spent on and whether it’s being well spent.”
Drug prices along the border are also far lower than retail sales in places like New York City, a distinction that criminologists say can get lost in the national White House numbers.
The U.S. Border Patrol uses street values much closer to DPS’ previous price system than the White House numbers. For example, a pound of heroin under the previous DEA price system is worth about $17,000, according to DPS. The U.S. Border Patrol puts the value of a pound of heroin seized in the border region at $32,000, according to recent news releases. The price under the White House formula adopted by DPS is a whopping $128,000.
Questions have surfaced previously regarding DPS border operations data. In July, the American-Statesman found that DPS had excluded an increase in heroin seizure numbers from public communications that appeared to contradict officials’ narrative of success. During a three-week operation in 2013, which provided the basis for the current effort, DPS claimed that steep declines in other drug seizures showed the operation’s success in deterring cartel activity.
DPS officials said they did not include heroin because it typically is smuggled through international bridges.
Price per pound
DEA Texas 2014 (Previously used by DPS):
White House National 2012 (currently used by DPS)
Pounds seized in Operation Strong Safety region from June 2014 to January 2015