Police, critics, at odds over secret files from Gang Strike Force scandalby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A state task force invited the public to weigh in at the Capitol Thursday night on the now defunct Metro Gang Strike Force and the work and data it collected during its time.
It's been nearly two years since scandal first broke over the Metro Gang Strike Force. The unit was shut down in 2008.
However, critics and supporters are still battling over its work, and fundamentally, how to decide if someone is a gang member and what to do with that information.
A couple of years ago, Donell Gibson was homeless. He was living on the east side of St. Paul and hanging out at the city's recreation centers. He remembers not having a place to go, trying to find friends and finding out some friends are not all good.
"You find that out later," Gibson said. "Just because you see me with that friend, I don't know he's a gang member. I find that out later. But still at that time, it didn't matter because he was a friend."
Thursday night, Gibson told a Legislative task force how that "friend" earned him a spot in Minnesota's GangNet database.
Police developed GangNet to identify and track suspected gang members. Associating with known gang members is one way to get on the list.
That list was one of the tools used by the Metro Gang Strike Force, a unit of about three dozen police officers from around the Twin Cities.
Many were lauded for fighting crime, but some were accused of taking -- and possibly pocketing -- cash they found on illegal immigrants. Others allegedly took televisions, jewelry and even an ice auger for their own use -- legally taken from citizens that cops classified as gangsters.
Donell Gibson, 24, insists he wasn't a gang member, and said police in St. Paul actually helped him. Gibson is now a dad, working two full-time jobs. He also said, though, that GangNet is a lingering stigma.
And in a nutshell, that's the dilemma left by the Gang Strike Force scandal -- one that the task force has been asked to fix.
Police insist that files like GangNet are a useful tool to battle organized crime. But even some cops say the system is flawed.
"The problem that I have with this GangNet is that people are making assumptions or identifying people before everything's looked into," said Tina McNamara, the former commander of St. Paul's gang and gun unit. "I want to see it redone."
Lawmakers tried that last year, and some even tried to abolish the system.
Instead, they could only agree on a task force to suggest changes to Minnesota's rules on secret police files -- rules like who gets listed and who can see them. That task force is wrapping up its work now, trying to come up with a compromise lawmakers can bless, but it's a pitched battle.
On one side, police and prosecutors want the state to adopt federal rules that would formally allow files like GangNet. They aren't defined by existing state law.
Authorities also want a new legal classification for secret police files to keep them permanently out of public view.
Hennepin County prosecutor Hilary Caligiuri told the task force that files like GangNet can be make-or-break factors in court.
She talked about a drive-by slaying she recently prosecuted. Caligiuri said GangNet helped locate witnesses who said the suspect had admitted being in a gang called the Oroville Mono Boys.
"That was very strong evidence in allowing the jury to analyze this other information that said this looks like an OMB who believed he was shooting at a Purple Brother," Caligiuri said. "It supported it, corroborated it. It was critical information that completed that proof to the jury."
On the other side, critics say the databases lack some basic public protections, like due process.
They want regular checks for accuracy, a way to dispute errors and assurances that the files won't find improper use -- like disclosure to employers or as justification for misconduct like that by the Gang Strike Force.
"If we continue to gather information, hold it in places, and use it against people [and] that concerns me," said Jeff Martin, an attorney and the incoming president of the St. Paul NAACP. "Somewhere along the way, the power that goes with that intelligence gathering will be abused."
The task force includes police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others. It has been split on what to do, but hopes to make some recommendations to the next Legislature.
- Morning Edition, 12/03/2010, 7:40 a.m.