Investigator says gang strike force actions were 'criminal'by Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A new report says the scandal-ridden Metro Gang Strike Force was guilty of widespread impropriety.
A former federal prosecutor and former FBI agent who reviewed the strike force also concluded that much of its police work was ineffective, and multi-agency police units like it should be banned.
The 36-page report is a catalog of police misconduct, allegedly perpetrated by nearly a dozen members of the 35-officer gang strike force, and possibly more.
As an example, the report say some strike force members took home recreational equipment such as Jet Skis and an ice auger, as well as electronics, computers, jewelry and tools. The items were all seized from suspected criminals, but few of the seizures resulted in actual charges, or even investigations.
The review panel found officers repaid the Strike Force pennies on the dollar for some of the items, and nothing for the rest.
Former federal prosecutor Andy Luger co-chaired the investigation into the strike force, which was funded by the state Department of Public Safety.
"One example was notable and a number of people told us about it, where an officer brought a large screen television home for that officer's child as a present," said Luger. "Some witnesses described the situation regarding televisions as a free-for-all."
Luger says other seized property has simply vanished from the now-closed strike force offices, including snowblowers, baseball cards and even a set of dining room chairs.
"It's criminal," Luger said. "It's going to be for the FBI and the United States Attorney's office to determine, but if you take something home that doesn't belong to you and you know it doesn't belong to you, that's a crime."
The report also documents a wide range of apparent professional lapses by strike force members.
Some officers allegedly snooped through the National Criminal Information Center database for their personal use, left loaded guns unmarked in an evidence room, and kept no written record at all for some cases.
The report also suggests widespread civil rights violations.
It says strike force officers routinely combed through the information in cell phones belonging to people they stopped on the street, without search warrants.
The report also tells of a squad of officers, acting on a dubious tip about a drug suspect retrieving a car. The officers allegedly laid in wait for Hispanic car owners at the Minneapolis impound lot.
Luger said police seized more than $4,000 in cash from a Honduran man who showed up at the impound lot and $100 from a Mexican man.
"Neither man had any drugs on them. Neither man was ever accused of trying to pick up a car with drugs in them. But all the money was seized and not given back. Both men were undocumented aliens and are now facing deportation," said Luger.
Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion ordered the report. His agency acted as a pass-through for some of the gang unit's funding.
"I am disappointed, disturbed and troubled by the findings," Campion said. "I know the Metro Gang Strike Force has done some great work over the years. But I also know that some officers took part in unethical and highly questionable conduct, conduct that is not consistent with the high standards we expect of law enforcement in Minnesota."
Campion said he'll call for reforms in law enforcement oversight and funding at the Legislature.
The report says the unit's lack of supervision from existing law enforcement agencies left the strike force without enough accountability. The report recommended that such stand-alone task forces should be prohibited.
It also says the state should consider changing forfeiture laws, so that law enforcement agencies can't depend on seizures for a major part of their operating funding.
West St. Paul Police Chief Bud Shaver chairs the group of police chiefs that ran the strike force, although he didn't have day-to-day oversight of the operation.
Shaver declined to talk about specifics in the report. He said the investigation was difficult, but necessary.
"As a public entity, we need to be transparent, we need to be answerable to any kind of allegation, and that's what this process is about," Shaver said. "Hopefully at the end, we'll have some good lessons learned and we'll be able to conduct gang enforcement in a much better fashion."
The report does not name any individual officers, and Luger says many of the officers refused to talk to the review panel about the strike force.
It also doesn't link any alleged wrongdoing with a specific agency, although participating police forces will be briefed privately about the officers from their department.
The report and its documentation have been turned over to the FBI, which is already investigating the strike force.
E.K. Wilson, spokesman for the FBI's Minneapolis field office, confirmed that the agency received the report this morning and has been in discussions with the Department of Public Safety.
But Wilson emphasized that the FBI case is separate from the review panel's findings, "and our focus is to determine if there was any violation of federal law," including federal corruption and civil rights laws.
"Just because their panel is done doesn't mean that our case is done or even nearing completion," Wilson said. "It's completely independent."
Wilson declined to say whether the report included any new information, or whether any charges were expected out of the FBI probe.
In addition, four legislative committees will meet jointly next week to hear about the report and potential changes to the way multi-agency police units work.
- All Things Considered, 08/20/2009, 5:20 p.m.