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Continued: Victims of Metro Gang Strike Force awarded $840,000

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 23, 2012 - 11:21 PM

More than $840,000 was awarded Monday to 96 victims of illegal searches, seizures and use of excessive force by the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force, including a dozen juveniles who were targeted by a Brooklyn Park police officer.

The scandal-ridden gang unit, shut down by the Department of Public Safety three years ago this month, broke through people's doors without justification, seized property without authorization and injured people who were not suspects, according to reports by Mark Gehan, a St. Paul attorney appointed as special master in the case.

The awards, ranging from $300 to $75,000, conclude the main phase in the 2010 settlement of a $3 million class-action lawsuit that allowed victims of the Strike Force's misdeeds to apply for compensation, but only if they had had property taken.

The remaining money, expected to approach $2 million after appeals are heard and Gehan is paid, will be used statewide for training of law enforcement officers on issues ranging from racial sensitivity to the seizure of property.

Gehan sifted through 216 claims and rejected 120 of them; 56 individuals have indicated they will appeal the denials to U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen, who presided over the case.

The Strike Force, a multi-jurisdictional police unit, collapsed in July 2009 after a series of allegations, including misplaced evidence, mishandled funds and raids on people's homes where property was improperly seized.

At least 12 of Gehan's awards, totaling $138,000, went to targets of a special Strike Force "gang surge" operation from May 15 to July 30, 2008. All involved were juveniles at the time, so their names were not released.

Referring to the surge, Gehan wrote that Strike Force officers, "and particularly Greg Burstad, conducted an intensive intelligence gathering operation in the cities of north Minneapolis, Brooklyn Park, Crystal and Robbinsdale."

"Many of the claimants state they were handcuffed and assaulted," Gehan continued. "Some state they were taken to jail and then released without charges. They all complained that they were searched or that the automobiles they were in were searched and that personal property was inspected and often taken."

Gehan said he was satisfied that in almost every claim connected to the surge, at least one person was a member of a gang, either directly or tangentially.

But, he added, the complaints "in the aggregate" were so similar, "they present a compelling basis" to believe them.

"The conduct described by claimants goes well beyond an investigative 'stop and frisk,'" he wrote.

Gehan awarded $25,000 to a person who was a juvenile at the time, saying Burstad "used excessive force in the actual physical arrest of claimant." He said medical records documented the case, one of seven instances in which the youth was harassed.

In another case, in which Gehan also awarded $25,000, he said Burstad and others repeatedly harassed a youth, confiscating cellphones, kicking one youth, choking another and forcing their way into the claimant's parents home at midnight.

Burstad, a Brooklyn Park officer, is now a sergeant.

In a statement released late Monday, the Brooklyn Park police defended Burstad and praised his record with the department, noting that the allegations against him have never been substantiated in court.

"In fact, the settlement agreement specifically includes no admission of guilt or liability by any of the parties associated with [the Strike Force], including Brooklyn Park," the statement said. "To this date not one complaint or allegation related to Sgt. Burstad has ever been filed with our department by parties of the lawsuit."

The largest award, $75,000, went to a Minneapolis woman who was targeted in a police raid on Aug. 1, 2006.

"Claimant says that many officers rushed into the house and that she was put to the floor and repeatedly kicked in the face," Gehan's report said. A Strike Force attorney said that if there were any injuries, they were caused by a Minneapolis SWAT team that entered first.

The claimant submitted statements from three people who saw her badly bruised face right after the warrant was executed, along with a report from Fairview Southdale Hospital, where she went on Sept. 1. She said the officers apparently went to the wrong address.

Gehan, former president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, was also special master in the state's 1998 lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Strike Force attorneys cannot appeal Gehan's findings, according to the settlement terms.

Joe Flynn, an attorney for the Strike Force and the cities and counties whose officers served on it, said Gehan's findings "demonstrate the limited nature of the wrongdoing." He said that many of the awards "were simply for failure to return property which would have been otherwise subject to the forfeiture process."

Jason Johnston, an attorney with Zimmerman Reed, which filed the suit, said, "There was a select group of officers who abused their position.

"I think the process has been successful," he said.

But Phil Fishman, an independent attorney representing victims in the class-action suit, said he was dismayed that the Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman did not call a grand jury in the case.

"The tragedy of the Strike Force," he said, "is you have police who ... were common thugs and they were never brought to justice."

Freeman said in 2010 that he would not prosecute Strike Force members. He said major obstacles included the group's substandard handling of records and evidence and the refusal of 29 former officers and employees to talk to investigators.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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