Lawmakers debate on millions of dollars left in strike force coffersby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A plan to clean up the remnants of the Metro Gang Strike Force began to take shape at the Capitol Tuesday.
The 35-member unit was dismantled this summer, after allegations of improper seizures of money and property and other police misconduct.
Two months after the state broke up the embattled gang unit, there are still millions of dollars in the strike force bank accounts and a host of questions about how to avoid repeating the unit's mistakes.
"I don't think I could be any more clear when I say the Metro Gang Strike Force will never be revived," Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion said, speaking to a joint meeting of four legislative committees at the Capitol today.
Lawmakers met to talk about cleaning up the legal and financial mess left behind by the strike force, after it was shut down in July for alleged misconduct.
The police unit leaves behind about a million dollars in taxpayer money that was to fund the strike force operations.
It's unclear where the rest of the money comes from and as much as a million dollars may have been taken from people on the street - some of it possibly illegally.
Now, local authorities have come up with a preliminary plan to return it. Doug Gronli represents a municipal insurance pool that has volunteered to handle claims to the money. Cities that supplied officers to the unit belong to the pool.
"If someone had $100 taken from them, and they can demonstrate that they had that loss, what we're trying to do is get that back to them," Gronli said. "Or, if their car was taken wrongly, not properly forfeited, we're going to try and take care of that part of the loss."
Authorities have also discussed the option of appointing a so-called "special master" to handle claims against the gang strike force, much like the legal arbiter who handled claims after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge.
But lawmakers put the brakes on the plan, saying they may not want cities trying to clean up the unit's mess.
"I don't think it's your money to give away at this point," said DFL Sen. Ron Latz of St. Louis Park. Latz said the status of the money needs to be clear. "I would encourage you to seek further legal advice on that before you implement any process and make any representations to potential claimants that you've got the money sitting right there."
Other lawmakers noted that some strike force seizures may have been legitimate, even if their cases have been left in legal limbo by the gang unit's shutdown. Under state law, prosecutors and the state are entitled to a cut of legitimate seizures.
But many of the strike force's activities have no apparent documentation explaining what happened, something that makes it hard to account for at least a portion of the money.
Officials were clearer, though, on the legal legacy of the gang strike force.
Lawmakers said this summer that they might revisit criminal forfeiture law, to make financial gain a less tempting motivation for police and officials at the hearing discussed another three potential reforms.
DFL State Rep. John Lesch, who is also a city attorney in St. Paul, asked why there wasn't more legal expertise among the officials who oversaw the strike force.
"A prosecutor's office should probably have some say or oversight on a board like the oversight council," Lesch said.
Public safety commissioner Campion also said that his agency would curtail its support for special-purpose police units in general. He said the Twin Cities simply had too many to manage them adequately.
"We're not going to have 13 task forces running around the seven-county metropolitan area," Campion said. "We're going to have a more effective, more efficient, a more streamlined law enforcement environment."
And finally, lawmakers said it was important to build in some accountability to police agencies that don't have a clear jurisdiction or identifiable authority overseeing them.
"Apparently, civil rights complaints here in the metro area didn't go where they needed to get the kind of investigation that would give people confidence that this kind of thing can't go on and that they will have someone who will listen when they make a complaint," DFL State Sen. Mary Olson from Bemidji, said.
Twin Cities sheriffs and police chiefs are expected to meet Tuesday, Sept. 29, to sketch out a plan to take up the gang unit's efforts to fight organized crime. Lawmakers plan to hold another hearing in early October to discuss police reform.
- All Things Considered, 09/22/2009, 5:54 p.m.