State finds many faults with FBI-run gang task force

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 16, 2011 - 11:40 AM

Among the problems cited: Agencies don't share information, leadership is lacking and advisory board has never met.

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Two Metro Gang Strike Force officers searched a suspect during a major drug bust in downtown St. Paul in June 2007.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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In two reports over the past month, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety identified major deficiencies in the oversight and operations of a new FBI-run task force set up to replace the scandal-ridden Metro Gang Strike Force.

The Safe Streets Task Force, which consists of investigators from the FBI, Minneapolis and St. Paul police and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, suffers from a lack of organization and oversight, and is plagued with conflict and a refusal to share information, the state found.

Agencies don't collaborate when targeting gangs or violent groups, and in several cases decisions about what to investigate "are made based on information offered up by informants," one report found.

An advisory board required by a 2010 law designed to prevent a recurrence of the Strike Force debacle has never met, the state found.

The reports were denounced by the Minneapolis FBI office, which oversees the task force. "The findings are based upon inaccurate information and dubious research practices," Kyle Loven, chief division counsel for the local FBI office, said in a statement. He said further comment by the FBI "would run contrary to the interests of effective public safety."

Sgt. William Palmer, a Minneapolis police spokesman, called some of the report's findings "constructive" but said Minneapolis police did not know whom the Public Safety Department had talked to in preparing the report. Howie Padilla, a St. Paul police spokesman, said "if there are improvements to be made" his department would work with the FBI on them but "it's difficult to respond to the allegations in the report when it is attributed to vague sources who make blanket statements."

Andy Skoogman, a spokesman for the state Public Safety Department, said the agency stands by its findings of the final report. Public Safety Commissioner Ramona Dohman "believes the agencies involved are willing and able to fix the deficiencies," he said.

Some of the criticisms in the reports are similar to those leveled against the Metro Gang Strike Force, whose implosion was blamed in part on the failure of the Strike Force advisory board to conduct proper oversight.

The state, however, does not accuse the Safe Streets Task Force of misconduct by task force officers.

In 2009, revelations of missing funds, mistreatment of suspects and misappropriation of seized property were factors in the state's decision to shut down Metro Gang Strike Force.

In legislative hearings on the Strike Force after it was closed down, then-Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion promised aggressive scrutiny of task forces funded by the department in the future.

With no metrowide agency to battle gangs and violent crime, the U.S. attorney's office and Minneapolis FBI, in discussions with the Minneapolis and St. Paul police, developed a plan for a new unit, patterned after Safe Streets units around the country. The state contributed BCA agents and $500,000 to the effort.

Hard work and dissension

Bob Bushman, the statewide coordinator of drug and gang task forces, has the responsibility of evaluating the new task force, the only federally led effort among 24 crime task forces in Minnesota.

In mid-October, Bushman completed his initial assessment of the Safe Streets Task Force, which was followed by the final report early this month by department staff after further interviews and a review of task force policies and procedures. The reports were obtained by the Star Tribune under the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

In his report, Bushman noted that task force members "work hard to produce good cases and to protect their communities" and "the proof lies in several cases that the FBI Safe Street Task Forces has successfully investigated and prosecuted."

But the report describes dissension within the task force over how cash seized in raids is shared by agencies and which suspects should be charged, as well as an unwillingness by agencies to share information from informants "because of the competitive nature of statistics-driven street operations."

"Based upon my meetings with FBI Safe Streets Task Force supervisors, officers and assistant U.S. attorneys, it is quite clear there is a lot of conflict and frustration over decisions regarding prosecution of cases," Bushman wrote.

The report found "a clear lack of communication inside and outside" the task force. Bushman wrote that the three supervisors do not regularly meet, and "from my discussions with task force personnel, it is apparent that people who work there have differing opinions regarding exactly what their mission is."

'No outside oversight'

A five-member advisory board, which according to the task force's application for state funding was to play a "significant role in developing and monitoring of task force priorities, budgets and operational polices and procedures," had never been convened, leaving decisions in the hands of task force supervisors and officers, the reports said.

In a meeting Nov. 3, "supervisory staff indicated that they had no knowledge of this requirement as they did not write the applications" for funding.

"The lack of advisory board involvement leaves the FBI Safe Streets Task Force with no outside oversight of operations or the selection of targets and prosecutions, no formal method for conflict resolution and no regular forum for discussion about strategy, problems or allegations of resources," Bushman wrote.

Bushman said the reassignment early this year of an FBI agent who had supervised the task force left "no clear leader or decisionmaker for many task force issues" which he said was "a critical oversight issue" that must be addressed.

The final report says that "whether the deficiencies identified by the statewide coordinator are pervasive, exist to a certain degree or are merely perceived by others to exist, they must be clarified and addressed." It says the task force "must immediately identify and convene governing board members to provide local oversight and guidance."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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