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Metro Gang Strike Force still in hot water

Southside Pride ,
BYLINE: Ed Felien
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Hennepin County, MN

The controversy surrounding the Metro Gang Strike Force (MGSF) will not go away.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman decided there was not enough evidence to bring criminal charges against members of the Strike Force. There were three areas where there could have been criminal misconduct: theft and other related offenses; misconduct by a public officer; and failure to protect property and data.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the charge of theft against the MGSF is the claim that they seized property without a valid law enforcement purpose.

According to Freeman’s report: “Investigators also found a number of cases where some documentation was missing concerning forfeiture of seized cash. This is consistent with the Legislative Auditor’s Report which says: ‘The strike force did not have documentation to show that it served seizure notices for 202 of 545 cash seizures we tested, totaling about $165,650. By not serving the required notice of seizure, the strike force violated the statutory administrative forfeiture process and may not have a legal right to retain the seized cash.’”

It is important to note that the above cash was deposited in the MGSF evidence room and eventually in an MGSF bank account. There is no evidence that MGSF officers took cash from suspects for their personal use.

The American Civil Liberties Union is very critical of Freeman’s decision not to prosecute members of the MGSF. In their statement they say they oppose “the power of law enforcement to seize and forfeit property without criminal charges. This power, known as administrative forfeiture, gives police the power to decide guilt and punishment. Under administrative forfeiture, the property owner must pay to sue to have their property returned, and the police do not need to charge or even arrest someone to punish them with forfeiture.”

Freeman’s criminal investigation looked into claims that MGSF employees took and used property from the evidence room, but these reports could not be substantiated. Some property that was taken by employees was alleged to have been marked for destruction and was permitted by the commander to be converted to the personal use of employees, but the commander refused to speak with investigators regarding these claims. As a result there was insufficient evidence to support criminal charges.

The Special Review Panel begun by Minnesota Commiss-ioner of Public Safety Michael Campion found that “officers stated that they used laptops removed from the evidence room for official purposes.” But Freeman concludes “absent proof that specific computers were converted to personal use, there is insufficient evidence that any of the employees ‘took’ the property as required by the interference with property in official custody statute 609.47.”

An ice auger was seized as part of a narcotics case. It went missing from the evidence room. The case officer let it be known he was looking for the auger, and then the auger mysteriously reappeared. Twenty watches disappeared and never reappeared.

Many seized items were sold to MGSF members or their families. A pair of trailers were sold to the commander’s son. They were located on the commander’s vacation property in northern Minnesota. One was a 7-foot by 9-foot flatbed trailer that cost $1,300 in 2005 when it was bought from Gander Mountain. The son paid $500 for it. Freeman concludes: “There is insufficient evidence that the prices paid were so far below the market value for these used trailers that the transaction could be deemed a swindle of the MGSF.”

There was certainly sloppy bookkeeping. Freeman and the legislative auditor agree “that the state of the records and the lack of internal controls made it impossible for us to conclude that all seized cash was either held in the property room or deposited with the fiscal agent.” The commander said he recalled paying a MGSF worker $5,000 as an advance until they could be put on the Ramsey County payroll, and he used money to pay confidential informants.

Some money was also used for travel. Freeman concludes, once again, there are insufficient grounds for prosecution of criminal wrongdoing. However, on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010, a federal court awarded $3 million in a class action lawsuit to victims of abuse by officers of the MGSF. According to Mara Gottfried in her piece in the Pioneer Press, Thursday, Aug. 26, the Federal District Court ruled that some MGSF officers would stop people not suspected of gang activity and seize their money. A Strike Force Review panel found "These encounters almost always involved a person of color.”

The lawsuit also claimed that strike force members "engaged in a pattern and practice of using their apparent authority as police officers to extort cash and property ... particularly from those concerned about their immigration status who would naturally perceive that they had no ability to assert legal rights." One of the attorneys for the victims said, "Everybody was failed here in the Twin Cities, everybody had a loss here. The Constitution didn't work for all of us when this rogue task force was run amok out there, violating people's rights. ... This is an ugly chapter, I'm sorry to say, in the life of the Twin Cities. But it ends positively, it ends on a good note."

Once again, the criminal justice system cannot act because district attorneys believe they cannot prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and civil courts have issued a $3 million settlement based on a preponderance of evidence. And the officers responsible for this bleeding of the public treasury continue to be paid by the City of Minneapolis and other jurisdictions that were part of the now defunct MGSF.

Freeman’s report continues: “On May 20, 2009, the day MGSF operations were suspended; several MGSF officers were seen shredding documents.” “The Official Records Act requires public officers to ‘make and preserve all records necessary to a full and accurate knowledge of their official activities.’ ” But, once again, without direct evidence that the officers were deliberately trying to destroy evidence that would implicate them in a crime, there is not sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges. The officers claimed they were told by their home departments to “clean out their files,” and they needed to destroy files to protect undercover officers and informants.

The MGSF has disbanded. The commander has retired after 40 years as a St. Paul police officer.

Charles Samuelson, the director of the ACLU-MN, wants Freeman to convene a Grand Jury to hear evidence and determine if crimes have been committed and whether officers should be indicted: "The County Attorney has shown there is no punishment for abuse of forfeiture power. We are shocked that he would make this decision without input from the public. Again, we urge him to call for a grand jury investigation, and let the community decide whether any crimes were committed." Randy Hopper, the attorney who won the $3 million settlement in Federal District Court against the MGSF, wants the Minnesota Attorney General to investigate, because he believes the Hennepin County Attorney works too closely with the officers and has a conflict of interest.

In all probability, the matter will simply rest, and the events will fade into memory.
One of the last actions of the MGSF was to clean out the Rolling 30’s gang from South Minneapolis. They got convictions for more than a dozen gang members and made a major contribution to peace and quiet in the Powderhorn and Central neighborhoods of South Minneapolis.

When Officer Jerry Haaf was murdered by the Vice Lords almost 20 years ago, the police put tremendous pressure on the African-American community in South Minneapolis to the point that Mayor Sharon Belton publicly called for restraint. But they got one of the shooters to confess and testify against the others, and, eventually, they eliminated the Vice Lords as a scourge to South Minneapolis.
It must be that every cop wants to be Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry or Charles Bronson in Death Wish. The abuses of power by the MGSF were an example of that kind of Hollywood vigilante justice. If we believe in the rule of law, if we believe in equal rights for all our citizens, then we have to move beyond this kind of thuggery.

Clearly, we need a better way to deal with the social problems in our community, but until we find a way that we can all agree on, we’ll still need someone to take out the garbage, and when they do, they’ll get their hands dirty.

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