Where Strike Force failed, other agencies succeedby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — While the Metro Gang Strike Force was dissolved in scandal this summer, other police units across Minnesota have had notable successes fighting street crime, and can offer some key lessons for the Strike Force's successor.
In the spring of 2007, a Minneapolis street gang was earning a bloody reputation.
"We had about 25 homicides," said Police Chief Tim Dolan. "Eighty percent of them were on the North Side and they were all involved Tre-Tres."
The Tre-Tres are the Tre-Tre Crips, one of the city's most notorious gangs. They had a drug trafficking ring that stretched all the way to Faribault.
Minneapolis worked with two federal agencies - the ATF and the FBI - to target the gang, with what they called the Violent Offender Task Force. Dolan says the unit put more than a dozen gang members in federal prison.
"From the period that they indicted these individuals, we did not see another homicide on the North Side for the whole summer of 2007," he said.
The Violent Offender Task Force has had similar success targeting two other gangs, the South Side Bloods and the Gangster Disciples.
Those cases haven't made headlines like the Metro Gang Strike Force scandal.
A report this summer on the Metro Gang Strike Force - written by former federal prosecutor Andy Luger - highlighted the nebulous nature of the Strike Force's work. Cases were all over the map, ranging from routine traffic stops to searches for drug traffickers. Lawmakers have said they'll take action next year to prevent a repeat of the scandal.
But as police and lawmakers reform gang-fighting efforts, authorities are looking at some of the tactics that have proven successful elsewhere.
Police say, for example, it's important to pick a target for investigators, rather than just watching for crimes to pursue.
B.J. Zapor is the special agent in charge of the ATF in Minnesota. His agents were part of the task force that took down the Tre-Tre Crips, as well as drug rings in Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Zapor says in the ATF's case, the investigations focused the role of guns in gang crimes.
"The firearm itself has a life. It's like the DNA of violent crime," he said. "We can focus on the firearm and the people who are using it or possessing it illegally, to really bring us to the places that are going to have an impact."
Another hallmark of successful gang cases has been the close involvement of prosecutors. Zapor says prosecutors keep the focus on the law and lawbreakers, not just police work.
"We don't want a special agent or a task force officer to go out and investigate for months and months and then try to sell it to a prosecutor," he said. "We want the prosecutor to be part of an investigative team.
"A prosecutor or ATF counsel is definitely going to be keen to the things that need to be met to make the thing successful," he said. "And we don't contaminate a case, because we have counsel advising us at certain turns."
State officials have already said they plan to better link prosecutors and state-funded police units like the gang strike force, but police say there are other successful tactics that aren't yet on the reform agenda.
In Duluth, the Lake Superior Drug and Gang Task Force and the ATF have broken up two major drug rings and sent more than 50 people to prison in the last two years.
Lt. Steve Stracek, the unit's local commander, says the task force is separate from -- but held to the same standards as -- regular police. The unit even works inside the Duluth Police Department.
"All of our evidence, all of our seized property, everything, goes through the DPD evidence system, so we have a legitimate police department, DPD evidence processing room, that keeps everything in one place," he said.
That didn't happen with the Metro Gang Strike Force. They had their own offices that didn't have some basic police functions, such as secure evidence storage or a thorough system for handling paperwork.
And some experts are calling for even more radical change. Police are now allowed to keep some of the cash and assets they take from criminal enterprises. Departments like Duluth say they depend on it.
Dolan says the property and money seizures spark turf battles among police agencies, and distract them from the real purpose of law enforcement.
"We need to get away from seizures driving what we want to do ... seizures being a way to raise money and support your operation," he said. "I'd rather see the Tre Tres, the G.D.s and the Bloods go down than see $2 million come back to the department in seizures."
- All Things Considered, 10/15/2009, 5:53 p.m.