Eight years after the scandal-ridden Metro Gang Strike Force was shut down, a law enforcement training course mandated as part of a settlement with victims has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and is still in development — with no firm date of completion.

The settlement called for the training of officers so the practices of the now-defunct unit would not be repeated. The multi-jurisdictional police unit was accused of racial and ethnic insensitivity, violation of civil rights and unjustified seizure of property. The improperly seized property included cars and television sets from people who were never arrested. Sometimes officers took the property home.

The Strike Force, made up of law enforcement personnel from about a dozen jurisdictions, was shut down in 2009. The collapse of the unit prompted new laws and policies designed to improve oversight and accountability of police in Minnesota. After a lawsuit was settled for $3 million, a third of the money was distributed to about 100 Strike Force victims. A large amount of the remaining money has been used to create the course, totaling $683,572.

Randy Hopper, who was the lawyer for the Strike Force victims and architect of the settlement, no longer has a role in the case because he left the law firm that settled it. He said he is dismayed that the course is not completed.

“I am shocked and surprised that after seven years, no training has been put in place during a time when we especially needed it, given the significant number of incidents of questionable use of force by police officers,” Hopper said.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who became one of the Strike Force’s strongest critics and ultimately withdrew his support for it, said he looked forward to seeing the completed course.

“I think the long delay is unacceptable,” he said. “I have a training course that I will put in this month that took four to six weeks to create.”

Classroom experience

Neil Melton, former head of the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, was first charged with creating the course, called the Metro Gang Strike Force Training Component. He originally envisioned a classroom experience. He worked for a year, was paid $114,000, then retired. His successor, Lora Setter, switched directions, envisioning an online video course called True North Constitutional Policing. She’s been paid $77,000 for her work. The latest vendor in helping to produce the course, an England-based company called Webanywhere, has so far charged $260,676.

The settlement called for the creation of a three-person board to oversee development of the curriculum: Minnesota Appeals Court Judge Kevin Ross, League of Minnesota Cities official Rob Boe and Florida attorney and former Circuit Court Judge Israel Reyes.

Ross and Boe work without pay, but Reyes, who was selected by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, has charged the settlement fund $61,732, billing by the hour. While Reyes has not responded to requests for comment, he billed the settlement $680 “regarding media attention.”

After questions were first raised by a reporter in June 2016 about the delay in producing the course, Strike Force attorney Joseph Flynn sent a letter to U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen, who presided over the lawsuit and settlement, explaining the reasons for the delay: Melton’s retirement, the shift in the course’s focus, and moving to an online program. He wrote that he hoped the course would be complete by the fall or winter of 2016.

When the course remained incomplete and questions were raised again by a reporter last month, Setter sent a letter July 5 to Ericksen, saying the “constitutional policing”-focused course would consist of five video modules, with the first available in November.

“However, more information and analysis is necessary before committing to this method of release,” she wrote.

“The difficulty with pinpointing a completion date and moving this project at a faster pace is the tremendous amount of coordination it takes to create the e-learning experience,” Setter wrote. Setter offered to show a reporter the first video module, then rescinded it without explanation.

Can't control the pace

J. Gordon Rudd, whose law firm, Zimmerman Reed, represented Strike Force victims, said his firm’s role was only to see that the victims were paid.

“I expect anyone interested in this educational program wishes that it could have been implemented earlier,” Rudd wrote in an e-mail. “We have been impressed with Director Setter, and are confident that she is working diligently to ensure a quality product will be provided to law enforcement that is valuable and can be an instrument of change.”

Ross, the appeals court judge, said in an e-mail that the panel was mandated only to develop the curriculum and can’t control the pace of the project. He said the reasons for the delays have been “valid and sincere.”

“Although I am disappointed at the length of time it has taken to move the training from concept to curriculum to rollout, I am very pleased with the content I have seen and the ambitious direction [Setter] has taken the training,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Flynn, who is not being compensated for his involvement in the course, defended the process.

“I feel ethically bound to see that it is carried out at the highest possible quality,” he said. “This is a really high quality product. We are not going to slap it together.”

'This is not Hollywood'

Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, has created many courses himself and said he was perplexed that it's taken so long to develop a training course.

“This is not Hollywood,” said Daly. “This is not trying to put out 'Star Wars.' It’s a basic course involving knowledge, skills and attitude.”

Attorney Marshall Tanick, who has handled a number of class-action lawsuits, said there is likely shared blame for the long delay in producing the course.

“To borrow a phrase from the Twins’ worst losing season last year, it looks like a total systems failure,” he said.

Setter, however, said in her letter that creating the course has been “rewarding and inspiring.”

“The vendors truly care about making this program the best it can be and are committed to creating a thought provoking, engaging learning experience for Minnesota’s law enforcement personnel.”

 

Twitter: @randyfurst