Ex-Gang Strike Force officer faces inquiry

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 26, 2012 - 11:32 PM

Brooklyn Park police to review Sgt. Greg Burstad after people alleged wrongful actions and received money.

A Brooklyn Park police sergeant is the subject of an internal affairs investigation stemming from claims in a lawsuit settlement that he had a role in targeting more than 20 juveniles when he was a member of the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force.

Brooklyn Park police reported the opening of the investigation two days after the claims were made public through filings in U.S. District Court on Monday.

Claims of illegal seizures and excessive force in which Sgt. Greg Burstad was named resulted in awards totaling $201,000 to at least 22 people. In all, 96 victims of alleged misdeeds by Strike Force officers received more than $840,000 approved by Mark Gehan, a St. Paul attorney appointed as special master in the case. Gehan said in his findings that Burstad and other unnamed officers violated the civil rights of gang members or people with them whom they investigated in a series of cases in 2008.

None of the claimants awarded money filed a complaint about Burstad with Brooklyn Park police before or after the settlement. The department conducted an internal audit of its Strike Force members after the unit was dismantled in 2009 and found no evidence of criminal or ethical misconduct. Burstad, a decorated officer who has been a Brooklyn Park officer since 2001, has no disciplinary history.

Burstad, 37, will remain on duty during the internal investigation. He couldn't be reached Thursday for comment.

The police department declined to comment, citing the inquiry.

The awards, ranging from $300 to $75,000, concluded the main phase in the 2010 settlement of a $3 million class-action suit that allowed victims of the Strike Force to apply for compensation, but only if they had property taken. Most of the remaining $2.2 million is expected to go for law enforcement training. Some will go to pay anybody who wins an appeal and for Gehan's services.

A pattern cited

In the cases involving Burstad, Gehan added a memorandum about an intensive intelligence-gathering operation conducted by the sergeant and other officers between May 15 and July 30, 2008. He highlighted a pattern in which gang members said they were handcuffed and assaulted, taken to jail and released without charges, or had cellphones illegally searched. Gehan also said there were too many similar instances to discredit what they had to say.

Gehan said this week that he wouldn't comment beyond what was written in his award findings.

One claimant said he was searched, handcuffed and detained 24 times by Burstad. Another said the sergeant offered him $500 to become an informant and arrested him for disorderly conduct when he refused. In numerous cases, Gehan said Burstad illegally seized cellphones, searched property when he didn't have consent of the owner or harassed people with repeated visits who weren't behaving suspiciously.

Jason Johnston, an attorney with Zimmerman Reed, which filed the suit, said the settlement terms ensured that both the claimants and officers had an opportunity to tell their side of the story. He wouldn't comment about Burstad's cases.

"My impression of Sgt. Burstad is that he is a good, quality officer," said Joe Flynn, an attorney for the Strike Force and the cities and counties whose officers served on it. "I had the benefit of speaking to him, and he was very cooperative and candid."

Flynn pointed out that Gehan rejected a number of the individual claims made against Burstad. He said he wasn't criticizing the review process because it was set up to handle claims expeditiously. But attorneys for the Strike Force couldn't bring in people for testimony, cross-examine witnesses or subpoena evidence, he said. They had 21 days to investigate a claim and give Gehan a response, Flynn said.

A 'stellar' record

In a statement released earlier this week, the Brooklyn Park Police Department stressed that Gehan reviewed only documents before making his decision, and that the settlement agreement includes no admission of guilt by the officers. The department said Brooklyn Park's citizens have benefited from Burstad's professionalism and commitment. The statement also mentioned his "stellar" service record, which includes several unit and department commendations and an "Officer of the Year" award in 2008. He was promoted to sergeant in 2010.

Carol LaFleur, who works with at-risk children, has had numerous dealings with Burstad and was stunned to hear about the allegations. She said that Burstad mentored children in trouble at a local junior high school, helped homeless children enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner and actively participated in community engagement picnics.

"He's one of the best officers around," she said. "Kids are thriving because of him."

Staff writer Randy Furst contributed to this report. David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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