Missouri has 27 multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, each covering a different geographic area of the state. These task forces wield enormous authority and discretion, and are not subject to the traditional oversight mechanisms typically governing law enforcement activities.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) published a map and listing of the different drug task forces on their website. One of them is listed as the ‘St. Louis Metro DTF’ (law enforcement uses ‘DTF’ regularly in emails and official documents; they seem universally unaware of other uses for the acronym).
I was interested in the activities of this task force, so I filed a Sunshine Law Request with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD). The response from their records custodian/attorney was, to say the least, surprising.
I was quite aware that the St. Louis County Police have a drug task force. They are listed separately on the map, and they have a different phone number. In fact, at this point I had already succeeded in obtaining documents from the STL County drug task force via an unrelated records request. So, I replied two days later (Dec 4) asking for clarification.
Near the end of the month, I still hadn’t received a response, so I re-sent my request for clarification as a Sunshine Law request, which mandates a response under state law. Mr. Lawson’s original response was quite literal and specific, and I was concerned that the SLMPD was simply calling their task force by a different name than the MSHP. My request asked for certain documents pertaining to the “St. Louis Metro Drug Task Force” which is the exact phrasing used on the map published by the Highway Patrol, but if the SLMPD called their task force something else, they would technically be correct in stating they don’t have records on the “St. Louis Metro Drug Task Force” — but they’d certainly be undermining the spirit and intent of Missouri’s Sunshine Law.
As a result, my second request contained five variations on the name “St. Louis Metro Drug Task Force” in an attempt to provide the SLMPD every opportunity to understand what I was requesting. My second reply to Mr. Lawson, after my first one went ignored for most of the month of December, contained two formal requests and additional clarification.
Mr. Lawson finally responded a week and a half later, and informed me that a search for the phrase “drug task force” had been fruitless. According to him, no one he had talked to was aware of the existence of a drug task force. He promised to ask another senior employee, and closed with a snarky comment about how he wasn’t sure how he could ‘produce records of the non-existence of something.”
On January 24th, another two weeks later, I heard from Mr. Lawson once more. He claimed he’d “brought this up to the Chief of Police” and that the Chief “doesn’t know what the Missouri Highway Patrol could be referencing.”
The Chief of Police for the SLMPD didn’t have a clue what kind of ‘drug task force’ the Highway Patrol could be referencing?
That’s odd, considering the ‘non-existent’ task force he personally oversees managed to spend $200k fighting the War on Drugs last year. That amounts to pretty good pay for not existing.
Via additional Sunshine Law requests to the Missouri Department of Public Safety for documents filed with DPS by the SLMPD Drug Task Force I was able to obtain additional information on their organizational structure (in addition, obviously, to confirming that they aren’t so non-existent after all). The 2013 Grant Details Report on the SLMPD Drug Task Force lists the Chief of Police as the Project Director of the task force, which gives him ‘direct oversight over the proposed project.”
But even better- guess who is listed on the very first page of the 2012 Grant Details Report as the “authorized official” legally responsible for accepting over $200k/year in funding for the task force? That’s right- its Mr. Mark Lawson, the SLMPD lawyer with whom I’d been communicating all along.
Upon coming to this realization in mid-April, I sent Mr. Lawson one last email explaining the situation from my perspective, and asking him for an explanation for his supposed lack of awareness of the drug task force’s existence. Unfortunately, Mr. Lawson didn’t take this opportunity to explain himself; six weeks later I have still not received a reply of any kind.
The lengths to which the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department was willing to go to avoid providing public records is troubling. Drug Task Forces in Missouri are entrusted with more power and are subject to less accountability than would be expected of typical law enforcement, which further underscores the need for transparency. The shenanigans of the SLMPD demonstrated here fly in the face of the spirit, if not the letter, of Missouri’s Sunshine Law. More than that, it is an affront to good governance that major police departments default to denying the existence of a drug task force when records pertaining to it are requested.
*For the sake of transparency where it is needed most, we’ve released every single page of documents we have gotten our hands on that relates to the SLMPD Drug Task Force. This includes Grant Details Reports from 2011-2013 and Quarterly Status Reports from 2012-2013, as well as my un-edited email conversation with Mr. Mark Lawson. These records begin to at least allow Missourians to get a preliminary idea as to how their $200k/year is used, and more importantly, what the War on Drugs being carried out in our name looks like. That archive is available here.
–Aaron Malin is the Director of Research for Show-Me Cannabis. You can email him with questions or comments at Aaron@ShowMeCannabis.com. Special thanks to Americans for Forfeiture Reform and the National Cannabis Coalition for making this research financially possible, as well as to Kelsey Smith for countless hours of research assistance.