St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota)
BYLINE: By David Hanners
The lawmen of the elite Metro Gang Strike Force were supposed to uphold the law, but a civil suit filed in federal court claims some of the unit's officers behaved no better than the people they were supposed to put in jail.
The suit, filed in federal court in Minneapolis, accuses officers assigned to the now-defunct unit of stealing almost $12,000 worth of cash, jewelry and other property in four incidents since June 2008.
None of the six people who claim strike force officers took their property in illegal seizures was ever charged with a crime by the unit, and they never got their property back, says the suit, which seeks class-action status.
The suit is the second filed against the unit in U.S. District Court in the past few weeks. On June 22, a Minneapolis couple sued the strike force, claiming that up to 20 officers burst into their home last February, handcuffed them, seized property and then failed to list a laptop computer and digital camera on their search warrant inventory.
"What our case is about is malfeasance, and there may be police corruption," said Robert Hopper, the Minneapolis attorney who filed this week's suit, which alleges civil rights violations, negligence, assault, false imprisonment and other claims.
He said the heart of his suit is a claim that seven cities, four counties and the Metropolitan Council -- the entities providing officers to the strike force -- failed to abide by the oversight called for in the 2005 state legislation that established the unit.
"What we're dealing with is the failure of government to properly do what the statute required it to do, which is provide oversight to the strike force, to have this strike force properly retain officers who were fit to do this job, to train them properly and to supervise them in the course of their performance," Hopper said. "And they did none of that."
West St. Paul Police Chief Bud Shaver, who headed the advisory board that oversaw the unit before it was disbanded, did not return a call for comment.
Retired Ramsey County sheriff's deputy Ron Ryan, a former St. Paul police officer who had been head of the unit, has defended the strike force in the past. In a May letter to the legislative auditor, Ryan said there was nothing "sinister or underhanded" going on in the outfit.
"Instead, we are a group of police officers whose main mission was to target gang members involved in criminal activity. Did we accomplish our goals and successfully serve the taxpayers of Minnesota? Absolutely yes, way above and beyond any expectations," Ryan wrote.
Strike Force Disbanded / The four incidents alleged in the lawsuit put a human face on some of the findings of the Office of the Legislative Auditor, which issued a report in May critical of the unit's accounting and management. Among the auditor's findings: The strike force "frequently did not follow the state's statutory forfeiture procedures."
State auditors also said the gang unit lacked internal controls that would have safeguarded or accounted for money, vehicles or other property that officers seized.
Hopper's suit lists six plaintiffs, but he said that number could rise.
"We suspect there could be potentially a couple of a hundred putative class members," he said. "They'd be similar cases to the ones we referenced. They were targeted and had unjust takings, perhaps arrests, so the false arrest and false imprisonment claims apply."
The Metro Gang Strike Force was set up by the Legislature four years ago when it reorganized the state's approach to dealing with gang-related crimes. Gang strike forces were to be set up across Minnesota. The metro unit involved 34 officers from 13 local entities, including the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as the sheriff's offices in Ramsey and Hennepin counties.
The strike force got about $2 million annually from the state, but it also funded its activities by seizing money, vehicles and property from gang-related suspects and then going to court to have the property forfeited. In fiscal 2008, the unit raised more than $393,000 through seizure and forfeiture.
After the auditor's report, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion temporarily disbanded the group. When Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek said the unit had lost credibility and his office wouldn't participate in a reconstituted unit, Campion made the shutdown permanent.
The auditor's report noted the strike force was unable to account for $18,126 in seized cash, nor could it figure out what happened to 14 vehicles that had been forfeited or seized.
Claim: Hispanics Targeted / The most recent incident in the lawsuit occurred June 2 in Minneapolis. Maura Gonzalez Salinas claims officers from the strike force and the Minneapolis Police Department came to her apartment to arrest her son for an alleged probation violation.
The officers insulted the woman and her family, "ridiculed the foods eaten by Hispanic persons" and then took $900 cash -- the next month's rent -- from the woman's dresser, as well as a 24-karat gold necklace worth $600, the suit says.
No drugs or contraband were found in the apartment. The lawsuit says that although the officers seized some property and left a receipt, the cash and the necklace weren't listed.
"As a result of taking the cash, Plaintiff Salinas was unable to pay her rent and had to vacate the premises," the suit says.
The lawsuit says strike force officers "intentionally targeted" Hispanics "based on their immigration status or other vulnerability" and that one of their favorite locales for seizing property was the Minneapolis Impound Lot.
"MGSF officers would often call the impound lot and ask if there were any 'Mexicans' there attempting to pick up vehicles," the suit says. "MGSF officers would show up at the impound lot, detain and search the individual, seize cash, the vehicle for forfeiture, or both; then send the individual on his or her way without a receipt for the taken property."
The largest improper seizure alleged in the suit was $7,500 worth of property and jewelry. Strike force officers allegedly took the items in a June 12, 2008, raid on the St. Paul home of John and Kathleen Yankovic in the 1700 block of North Edgerton Street.
Kathleen Yankovic was given an inventory for items seized during the search, "but many of the items that were taken from plaintiff's home ... were not formally noted, nor was plaintiff given administrative notice as to how she might reacquire the property," the suit says.
David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.
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