Campion releases new plan for gang crime, police misconductby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion laid out his plans at the Capitol on Wednesday for new and potentially improved efforts to fight gang crime.
Campion told lawmakers that the scandal-plagued Metro Gang Strike Force is a thing of the past.
"That's gone. It will never be reconstituted," Campion said.
He was speaking to a joint meeting of House and Senate public safety committees that have been reviewing what went wrong with the 35-member gang unit. A state review found money, evidence and property missing from the unit's headquarters.
The FBI is looking into alleged criminal activity, and at least four lawsuits have been filed against the group.
"This is a completely different template," Campion said. "We're talking about a different command structure with a different mission."
But Campion stressed it would reflect the lessons learned during the gang strike force scandal.
"I do not have all the answers," he said. "But I do have a framework that would be heavily dependent on information sharing, be a prosecutorial lead task force environment where major crimes would be the focus, rather than gangs and drugs, and the will be in close communication with our federal partners, both in the U.S. Attorney's office and the investigative agencies."
Campion said oversight by attorneys, a new metro-wide governing board and his department would thwart the kind of alleged misconduct that brought down the gang unit.
Campion also announced that the state was taking a step to address allegations that the gang unit's work was an example of racial bias in law enforcement -- as well as charges that the state's new seat belt law might mask racial profiling of motorists.
Campion said the state is going to put a video camera in every marked squad car in the state, in part to make a permanent record of police activity.
Lawmakers, though, responded skeptically to Campion's plans.
DFL State Rep. Paul Rosenthal, of Edina, said they didn't include the accountability he was looking for.
"You know, I think the public needs a simple mechanism to register a complaint when warranted, and I don't think this structure that we talked about today has that mechanism," Rosenthal said. "I think we should push them further on that."
The Metro Gang Strike Force operated independently of any regular law enforcement agency, out of a separate office in New Brighton. Also, officers typically didn't wear their uniforms, making it hard to tell which police department sent them to the strike force.
Critics have said that relative anonymity may have been part of what allowed things to go wrong.
But lawmakers weren't just questioning the gang unit.
At Wednesday's hearing, State Sen. Mee Moua, a St. Paul DFLer who chairs the powerful judiciary committee, asked about so-called "saturation details" by other police agencies. The gang unit allegedly dispatched officers in high crime areas to thwart street crime. A state investigation questioned the constitutionality and effectiveness of the roving squads.
"Part of the informal conversations that have taken place is to try to identify whether or not and to what degree these saturation details have been practiced," Moua said. "It's my understanding that they may or may not have been unique to the gang strike force. So we're going to have a conversation about that."
Dozens of police officers were at the Capitol to tell lawmakers about successful task forces in other parts of the state. And Campion, the public safety commissioner, said more details about the task force and other reforms would be forthcoming.
But police are also worried about an overreaction to problems with the gang strike force.
Forfeiture laws, criminal intelligence gathering and state funding for local law enforcement agencies have all come under renewed scrutiny as a result of the scandal. "Clearly, the Legislature in the past has given law enforcement some effective tools," said Denny Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, the state's largest law enforcement interest group.
"We would be very concerned about the loss of some of those things that have been very successful in combating crime, particularly crimes perpetrated by organized gangs," he said. "You're dealing with some pretty sophisticated people and it requires sophisticated tools."
Lawmakers said they would continue hearings into the scandal, possibly into the next legislative session.
- Morning Edition, 10/08/2009, 7:20 a.m.