Criticism is aimed at making the agency stronger.
The phone caller's voice shook with fury after this page last criticized the Metro Gang Strike Force, arguing that its six-person trip to Hawaii in March represented something less than good stewardship of public resources.
This was not just about a tropical training trip, the angry strike force officer said over and over. It was all about politics. Those stirring up the controversy were the Strike Force's longtime "enemies," blatantly attempting to take over or get rid of the operation.
A deeply disturbing report released last week by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor suggests that there have indeed been forces of destruction at work involving the Gang Strike Force. But the auditor's damning findings only lead to one conclusion: The forces undermining this valuable agency have come from within. Its real enemies were its longtime commander, advisory board members and officers who allowed the agency to deteriorate into frightening and shameful levels of dysfunction. The Strike Force imploded on their watch.
Auditor James Nobles has released many reports over the years; these findings are as bad as it gets in Minnesota. At best, the report paints a picture of an agency with little discipline, lax oversight, poor management and an embarrassingly archaic system for tracking evidence and ensuring that thousands of dollars in seized cash and property are properly accounted for and safeguarded from theft. Right now, no one at the agency can account for $18,000 in cash. Nor do they know the whereabouts of at least 13 of 80 cars taken from perpetrators since 2005. What happened to cars seized before then is anybody's guess.
At the very worst, the auditor's findings suggest an agency gone rogue -- one urgently requiring further investigation to determine if its practices have trampled on defendants' civil rights or run afoul of the justice system its officers are sworn to uphold. Of all the findings in the report, this was perhaps the most alarming: In 202 cases of cash seizure (totaling $165,650), the Strike Force could produce zero documentation showing that its officers had given proper legal notice to the person from whom the money was taken. This suggests a far more serious problem than bad bookkeeping. This is a civil rights issue. The notice is critical evidence that citizens were given their due process and the right to contest the seizure and get their money back if legally entitled. Did the agency thumb its nose at the search-and-seizure safeguards built into the legal system's bedrock? Individual Strike Force members' recent nocturnal paper-shredding activities -- which happened after the Department of Public Safety commissioner announced a deeper investigation -- do nothing to allay those fears.
Responses to the report filed by Manila (Bud) Shaver, chairman of the Strike Force's advisory board, and its former commander Ron Ryan could not be more different. Shaver, to his credit, acknowledges the problems found by the auditor and stands behind the fixes implemented by the agency's new, reform-minded commander, Chris Omodt.
The response from Ryan is sad. He still doesn't get it. Ryan's defense boils down to claims that old political enemies are out to get the agency. He also points to a series of previous strike force audits as evidence that the agency has been well-run. But these were often limited, narrow reviews that in most cases did not cover financial operations. The earlier audits also raised a number of issues about case management. To assert that they gave the Strike Force a clean bill of health is incorrect.
Politics will always be at play in law enforcement. Turf's a big issue, and the job attracts people with strong personalities. Those raising concerns about the agency aren't trying to destroy it; they're trying desperately to improve it. This agency's mission -- forging unique multiagency partnerships to fight gang crime -- remains vital to the Twin Cities. Those who truly value the Gang Strike Force will be the ones putting aside old quarrels and working to rebuild it.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.