FBI to investigate gang strike forceby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota's public safety commissioner today asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into operations at the Metro Gang Strike Force. It's a unit of more than 30 officers that fights organized gang activity in the Twin Cities. Police around the region agree that the strike force is valuable. But concerns are growing that the strike force isn't being held accountable enough for its secretive and wide-ranging work.
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion put it bluntly today.
"The credibility of the Metro Gang Strike Force, I think, has been called into question, not only in the public but even within the criminal justice community," Campion said.
Campion was talking to more than a dozen police chiefs and sheriffs in St. Paul, sitting as the strike force's advisory board.
The state's top cop said he was troubled about allegations involving investigators who went to the unit's headquarters after he'd suspended its operations last week.
"My understanding, the reports that came to me, it was after hours and there was some shredding and there were some computers that were unplugged," Campion said. "Whether that was true or not, I don't know. But I think we need to sort through that and get some answers before we can proceed to go forward."
Campion told the board that he asked the FBI to investigate, and he gave more details about a state probe he announced last week. He said he'd hired former federal prosecutor Andy Luger and retired FBI agent John Egelhof to review the unit's operations.
The Legislative Auditor issued a report last week, saying the unit couldn't account for more than $18,000 in cash and 14 vehicles it had taken from alleged gang members. The unit has been operating since January on the financial proceeds of similar seizures.
The report also found lax financial controls. It questioned a trip by investigators to a conference in Hawaii, and found the unit hadn't been adequately reporting its seizures and activities to the state.
The state pays nearly $1 million a year to keep the strike force going, and cut off the money last week.
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said officers feared that would kill off the unit. He said they had been retrieving their case files and destroying paperwork that might endanger gang informants if it fell into the wrong hands.
But Fletcher said there wasn't anything criminal about it.
"The timing was boneheaded and created a terrible perception. You can argue that it looks suspicious," Fletcher said. "But rest assured that those 30-some guys on that gang strike force are some of the hardest working cops that I have myself worked with over the years, and I have worked firsthand with a lot of them.
"These are some of the best cops that we have in the state of Minnesota. Are there things they could do better? Absolutely. I'm telling you, they're not bookkeepers. They're good cops."
But the questions about the unit have only been deepening. For example, the Minneapolis Police Department is dropping out of the joint effort, citing its own budget problems.
That's prompted some other departments to question the value of a cooperative effort that doesn't include the state's biggest city.
Other departments have also been questioning a new direction for the strike force, toward longer-term undercover investigations, rather than street-level intervention.
St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington said having the gang unit's boots on the ground has been critical in his city.
"The strike forces have largely been my savior for the last few years," Harrington said. "Whether its big special events where we know lots of gang members have come, or flareups that happen periodically, the strike force has saved my bacon on a bunch of occasions, because they gave me a 30-person team that could saturate an area and could put that fire out."
But other commanders say gang and drug task forces, squads that track down violent offenders and other specialized units, may be soaking up too many scarce resources.
Brooklyn Park Police Chief Michael Davis said he's not convinced a gang strike force, particularly one without Minneapolis on board, is a good investment.
"What I want to see is a complete re-examination of all our task forces. All the law enforcement resources in the metro area," said Davis. "Let's look at what we're trying to accomplish. Let's look at the tools we have to accomplish that. Do they got to take a new form? Do they need to be reincarnated in a way that makes sense back in our home agencies? I want to make sure that there's not redundancy."
Still, the strike force is taking steps to get its affairs in order. The state probe is scheduled to issue findings and recommendations by the end of June.
The strike force is also about to hire a bookkeeper to track its finances. Police hope to have it back up and running by mid-summer.
- All Things Considered, 05/27/2009, 5:20 p.m.