As Gang Force takes fire, cops weigh next move

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2009 - 12:38 PM

South metro police tackle a growing problem while urban counterparts face investigation.

The Metro Gang Strike Force remains in disarray, its operations suspended during an accountability inquiry. The gang violence that it would work to stem, meanwhile, has kept on seeping southward from urban hubs.

Bloodshed erupted in April in Lakeville when four people were wounded after a suspected gang member shot into a mobile home. A few weeks later in Hampton, a suspected gang member was arrested after allegedly exchanging gunfire with a man during a festival at a busy Buddhist temple. Nobody was injured.

South-metro law enforcement leaders are trying to figure out how to continue the anti-gang work should the Metro Gang Strike Force go down for good, said Dave Bellows, chief deputy of the Dakota County Sheriff's Office.

"While the county does not have a significant gang problem, we have the influences of gangs, and it's important that the work that was being done by our members not just go by the wayside," Bellows said.

A Dakota County sheriff's deputy will be assigned to a new multi-jurisdictional task force that's to be started this week by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). It will be led by Hennepin County Sheriff's Capt. Chris Omodt.

Dakota County's sole investigator who had been working on the Metro Gang Strike Force was switched to drug investigations temporarily because profits from the illicit sales are the lifeblood of gangs, Bellows said.

That investigator and other area law enforcers plan to meet Tuesday to discuss plans for the reconstituted team. Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and St. Paul and West St. Paul police are among departments that will join the scaled down task force, which will store its evidence and files at the BCA.

The Metro Gang Strike Force is in limbo after its new commander suspended operations last month after a legislative audit turned up missing cash and vehicles seized from suspects. A state panel and the FBI are probing the task force's operations.

While the Metro Gang Strike Task force did good work, it was not always able to help with issues specific to Dakota County because gang problems are so prevalent in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Bellows said.

But the violence radiates, he said, and gang members and their activity must be checked.

"When we arrest them, we find they don't live in Dakota County; they live elsewhere for the most part. But that doesn't mean that Dakota County is immune from violence happening within our borders," Bellows said.

County Attorney Jim Backstrom said he sees the work of the Metro Gang Strike Force as crucial to law enforcement.

"It's very important and critical work," he said, "We have unfortunately far too much gang activity in the Twin Cities and other areas of our state."

Backstrom said he's grateful that the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has stepped in to coordinate a new gang task force.

"We need to have a coordinated effort to respond to that activity," Backstrom said, "just as the gangs are coordinated in their efforts to try to break the law."

Careful oversight

Bellows said with the auditor's revelations and negative publicity about the Metro Gang Strike Force, other task forces could be eyed askance. He's quick to point out that the Dakota County Drug Task Force has worked well for years.

Each year, the Sheriff's Office hires an independent firm to fully audit that task force, which is composed of officers from Dakota County's cities and the city of Savage in Scott County.

"If the legislative auditor wants to come in and look at our books, we welcome it," Bellows said.

After the Metro Gang Strike Force audit came out, Bellows and other officials scrutinized the Dakota County Drug Task Force operations, he said.

"We went point by point with the problems they found with the gangs [strike force] and said, 'How do we compare with drugs?'"

Areas where the Metro Gang Strike Force lacked accountability, such as in property seizures, are handled differently with the drug task force, Bellows said.

"If there was ever a question, we could go back and trace it to precisely who handled it," he said. "All of the things that are missing with the Gang Strike Force were very strong."

Leading the Drug Task Force until this week has been Dakota County Sheriff's Capt. John Grant, who on Wednesday will be promoted to commander of sheriff's operations.

Under Grant's supervision, the Drug Task Force has worked big federal cases, and Grant has been recognized for his accomplishments by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the state of Minnesota.

Going after drugs is key to fighting gangs, Bellows said, just as is the sharing of intelligence among police agencies.

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017

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