Created 12 years ago as a team effort to battle gangs in the Twin Cities, the Metro Gang Strike Force has logged hundreds of arrests a year and a small fortune in forfeitures - the seized cash and merchandise that judges have allowed it to keep - to help finance its operations.

However, several police departments, including Minneapolis, are said to be evaluating whether it would be more beneficial to leave the Strike Force and manage gang issues in their own cities through their own departments.

Their departure would be another blow to an agency that has recently faced embarrassing revelations about an authorized trip by six investigators to a Hawaii conference and a report that a man lost $4,500 to the force but hasn't been charged with a crime.

Also, this month the state legislative auditor is expected to issue a report on how the Strike Force had handled seized property and funds.

During a preliminary review, the state Department of Public Safety found $300,000 in cash in a Strike Force safe and wrote last November that "the record-keeping system is inadequate and in some instances policies and procedures representing sound evidentiary procedures are either not in existence or not being consistently followed."

Minneapolis police, who have considered withdrawing for a long time, declined comment on Strike Force issues. "We would rather discuss this with the advisory board than in the newspaper," said Rob Allen, deputy police chief.

The board, which oversees the Strike Force, is chaired by West St. Paul Police Chief Bud Shaver, who said Friday that he knew of no police departments discussing pulling out and said several are considering joining.

"I think the gang unit is a great unit," said Shaver. "It has real value for the metro, and we're going to get through this."

Investigations questioned

But there is some criticism that the Strike Force should be tackling more in-depth investigations and fewer day-to-day crimes, and that may be part of the reason Minneapolis police might want to pull its nine officers out of the unit.

Shaver says the Strike Force has been doing in-depth investigations, but adds, "They should look at the opportunity to do a few more long term cases. We have limited resources. If you do more long term investigations, it might mean less on-the-street activities."

Capt. Chris Omodt became commander of the Strike Force in January. "My focus in the future is going to be long-term investigations, targeting the gang organization as opposed to a single member," he said. "[But] it's not going to happen overnight."

Omodt, with the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, is an experienced investigator with a reputation for helping fix agencies.

The Strike Force, created in 1997, has 33 officers from various law enforcement departments, plus two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, three analysts, and a few student workers and interns.

Problems surfaced last fall after then-commander Ron Ryan retired, and the Department of Public Safety looked into how cash and property was being handled.

"While I have no reason to believe there has been any malfeasance regarding the funds, the above facts indicate there may not be an adequate record system to identify the source and disposition of these funds," wrote Michael Campion, the commissioner of public safety.

Ryan fired off a blistering memorandum in November, saying he was "extremely disappointed" with the Commissioner, and he added that the memo "was generated by either misinformation, maliciousness, someone being mean spirited or maybe a combination of all three."

Ryan said the preliminary investigation showed a discrepancy of $11,027.82 in forfeited funds, but it actually was 82 cents. He could not be reached Friday for comment.

Sheriffs defend Force

It appears as if Campion hasn't backed down about his concerns. In a February memo, he wrote, "The Strike Force receives in excess of $2 million annual in state funds and transparency and accountability are critical elements in justifying on-going funding."

Despite what Minneapolis may do, other jurisdictions indicate they intend to stay.

"As an advisory board member, the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office has significant concerns with the management operations of the metro gang Strike Force," said Sheriff Rich Stanek. "We believe the Metro Gang Strike Force has great value in combating gang violence in the metropolitan area."

Added Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher: "Ramsey County has no plans to get out. The Strike Force has arrested over 700 criminals each year and has a significant impact on reducing crime. Most of the successes I would attribute to commander Ron Ryan's leadership."

Paul Mesken, a Strike Force member from Ramsey County, contends that Campion and Stanek are part of a small group coordinating a campaign to get rid of the Strike Force. Campion and Stanek had no comment on the allegation.

"As difficult as this current process is," said Shaver, "I know we're going to have a much better gang unit when we get through it. There is a lot of good work being done. That work never hits the newspaper."

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382