Editorial: Serving themselves at public's expense

  • Updated: September 9, 2010 - 7:14 PM

Silence undermined Metro Gang Strike Force investigation.

Officers at the former Metro Gang Strike Force were sworn to uphold the law. But when investigators delving into allegations of corruption at the agency sought their help, nearly 40 percent of the Strike Force's officers and employees, including former commander Ron Ryan, clammed up -- a self-serving act of group cowardice that further eroded Minnesotans' trust in law enforcement.

The 2009 Strike Force meltdown was one of the most ignominious chapters in state law enforcement annals even before Wednesday, when a new report from the office of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman revealed the shameful silence from Ryan and 28 other Strike Force members. Following last year's allegations of mishandled funds and improper forfeitures, Freeman's office worked for months with six investigators from three law enforcement agencies to determine if state laws had been broken. Investigators' frustration over the lack of cooperation is evident in the 19-page report, which painfully outlines why there's not enough evidence at this point to file state charges. An FBI investigation remains focused on civil rights violations.

Although investigators were severely hampered by the Strike Force's shoddy recordkeeping and haphazard operations, it's clear that Ryan and a significant number of former Strike Force members also undermined investigators by turning the thin blue line into a brick wall. "Of the 73 former officers and employees, 44 willingly discussed their experience with the [Strike Force], including their knowledge (if any) regarding the allegations in the publicized reports. However, 29 either failed to respond to repeated requests for interviews or chose to remain silent rather than discussing their experience with the investigators,'' the report stated.

Police officers certainly maintain their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves. Still, this lack of cooperation is a stunning gesture of disrespect to the system Ryan and his fellow officers enforced and protected. Society should expect higher standards of conduct from law enforcement. It should also be pointed out that not every Strike Force member who investigators sought to talk with was a suspect. In many cases, investigators were simply trying to determine if laws had been broken by other officers. Officers who didn't talk chose to impede justice.

Ryan's silence is especially reprehensible, though his attorney, Peter Wold, has disputed the report's statements about the former commander's "lack of cooperation.'' Wold said in a Thursday Star Tribune story that Ryan had asked Freeman's office to submit questions in writing, but that Freeman declined. On Thursday, Freeman said that a written exchange is no substitute for a face-to-face interview and that it would have allowed Ryan's responses to be "sandpapered" by his attorney.

Freeman's point is a valid one. Ryan -- who is now retired and pulls in pension checks of $8,214 a month -- certainly would not have signed off on written interviews for perps busted by his officers. He should have aided investigators, not played games with them.

Freeman has not released the names of the other 28 Strike Force members who stayed silent. He should make them public. So far, just one person, a clerk, has been fired in connection with the Strike Force debacle. Naming the 28 uncooperative officers may be one of the few ways anyone else could be held accountable. It would also serve as a powerful reminder to all in law enforcement that their job is to serve and protect the public, not to serve and protect themselves.

  • COSTLY RIGHT

    "As to the lack of cooperation when faced with a criminal investigation, [Strike Force] officers, like non-sworn people, have a constitutional right to remain silent. Yet in this situation, exercising that right comes at a cost. The investigation of this matter shows that most of the officers assigned to the [Strike Force] deserve nothing less than the gratitude of the public for a difficult job well done. Yet, the failure of a few to cooperate with the investigation leave incomplete confirmation of that fact for both officers and the public.''

    From a report by the Hennepin County Attorney's Office

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