Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion said Friday the future of the Metro Gang Strike Force "remains more in doubt today than it did a few weeks ago," and he announced creation of a temporary unit to combat gang activity this summer while Strike Force operations remain suspended.

Campion said the new unit will be based at the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul and should be fully staffed and operational in 10 days. It will consist of eight to 12 investigators from metro-area law enforcement agencies and will have "a strict governance and supervisory structure" led by Capt. Chris Omodt, who became Strike Force commander in January.

The old Strike Force will remain "suspended indefinitely," Campion said, in a departure from comments he made last month when said he hoped the unit's offices would be closed for only a few weeks. He said an internal investigation he ordered was taking longer than anticipated, requiring a temporary plan to combat gang violence.

Asked why the Strike Force's current structure was "more in doubt" now, Campion cited a second report of Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, released Wednesday, which found more vehicles had been mishandled by the unit. The report said 19 vehicles which Strike Force officers had seized had been turned over to a used-car dealer for resale, even though they'd never been properly forfeited, and the Strike Force apparently never received payment for the vehicles.

Auditor applauds change

Nobles said Friday he applauded Campion's move, adding "it makes a break from the old situation" and will allow officers to work on investigations free of the issues that have been raised about the Strike Force.

Nobles issued an initial 19-page report on May 20 indicating the Strike Force had mishandled large sums of money and property seized during investigations. The auditor could not account for at least 13 cars and more than $18,000. That night, Strike Force operations were abruptly suspended by Omodt after he discovered some of the unit's 34 members had removed files that day from their New Brighton headquarters and bins of shredded documents were found on the premises.

The following week, Campion appointed former federal prosecutor Andy Luger and former FBI agent John Egelhof to lead an internal inquiry, and he said the FBI had launched a preliminary investigation.

"Our intent has always been to conduct a thorough review of the Strike Force, reorganize the unit and re-open it as quickly as possible, but not before we're confident in the integrity of the operation," Campion said at a news conference Friday, flanked by members of the Strike Force's oversight board.

"Today, unfortunately, we're not confident in the operation under its current structure."

Luger called the temporary unit "a short-term solution."

In their preliminary report, Luger and Egelhof said their internal inquiry will not be finished by June 30, as originally hoped. They said that in interviewing members of the Strike Force board, they found "no clear consensus" on the Strike Force's mission. In addition, they said, they were investigating "information from a variety of sources raising allegations about the Strike Force dating back a number of years."

"We strongly recommend that the Department of Public Safety not reopen the Strike Force under its current structure until we can provide you with a report on these allegations," they wrote.

A subcommittee on reorganization created by the Strike Force advisory board is scheduled to meet on July 1.

Oversight promised

Campion said the temporary gang unit will comply with Nobles' recommendations and implement the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's evidence-handling procedures.

"I can promise you this unit will make certain that cash and vehicles seized by officers during the course of an arrest are appropriately logged, tracked and secured," Campion said.

The new unit will consist of some current Strike Force members and some new investigators, Campion said. Two assistant commanders will be appointed to serve under Omodt.

St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington attended the news conference and indicated he supported Campion's new temporary unit. He said that gang members might have been emboldened, both because the Strike Force had suspended operations and because of news accounts about the unit's problems. He said the news conference should alert gang members that there will be a unit in place that can "still reach out and touch them."

While officers from other law enforcement agencies attended the news conference, there was no representative from the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office. Holli Drinkwine, a spokeswoman for Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, said Fletcher was attending another meeting but supported Campion's recommendations "and we intend to be participating in the temporary gang unit."

Inspector Ken Schilling of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office attended the news conference, and Mike Carlson, Hennepin's chief deputy, said Sheriff Rich Stanek supports the temporary measures.

Minneapolis police withdrew from the Strike Force last month.

Andy Skoogman, a Public Safety Department spokesman, said it is unclear how long the temporary unit will operate, because that depends upon the inquiries by the FBI and the review panel.

He said there was a meeting on Friday to discuss how to get investigators from local law enforcement agencies signed up for the new unit. It will be funded out of $840,000 in Public Safety money that was to go to the Strike Force, and the arrangement for paying investigators' wages will remain the same as it was for the Strike Force: Public Safety will reimburse home departments for $50,000 of each officer's salary, with additional wages and benefits to be borne by the departments.

When Omodt suspended operations, he said Strike Force officers could continue investigations out of their home departments.

"Open cases are still being investigated by current Strike Force officers," said Skoogman. "That could change when the subcommittee meets on July 1."

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382