For years, beat cops had been frustrated with the constant level of drug-dealing in the Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis. They would snatch up the bad guys, but within days they were often back on the streets.

Enter Operation Payback: a meticulously planned investigation started in early 2007 by a unique Minneapolis Police Department crime-fighting unit to take down a notorious gang that brought drugs and violence to the neighborhood on a daily basis.

Last month, the man who was an initial focus of the effort was convicted in federal court on nearly a dozen counts of drug trafficking and gun possession. He was the last of 23 members of the gang, the Rolling 60s Crips, who pleaded guilty or were convicted of similar crimes.

The effect of this combined local and federal law enforcement group -- called the Violent Offender Task Force--is unmatched in the Midwest, officials say. Last year, it was responsible for 13 percent of the federal indictments from the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota.

"This task force is our gang unit with a big Superman "S'' on their shirts," said Police Chief Tim Dolan. "We would have a much larger gang problem without them."

What is the secret of the task force's success? It can focus on specific known targets without responding to daily case loads and is bolstered by extra staffing, financial resources and technical capabilities from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). There is less reliance on informants to testify and victims who are often afraid to cooperate. The task force targets criminal organizations and not individuals, which can result in stiffer federal plea agreements and sentences.

"What's happening with the Violent Offender Task Force is a model of ATF's priorities nationally," said Bernard Zapor, special agent in charge of the ATF's St. Paul division. "We are using finite resources. We are mixing in with the cops. We are showing them new techniques. And we are really getting a return on our investment."

The ATF also is able to lend its expertise gathering intelligence on gangs through wiretaps and video surveillance -- helping the task force track gang members statewide. ATF agents help train officers on how to track criminals through the guns they use -- and then use federal firearms laws to put them away for generally longer prison sentences, Zapor said.

"Every firearm has a life to it. We use the DNA of the gun to get to other people, the co-conspirators, and then go after them as a crime syndicate instead of as individuals," he said.

Frustrated beat cop

As a beat cop in Phillips, Police Sgt. Jason Case saw the same people dealing crack cocaine and destroying the area day after day. Those arrested would fall into the "revolving door" syndrome. A failed rehab program or ineffective court sentence often quickly sent dealers back to their corners.

"How do you explain to people there is nothing you could do?" said Case, who brought the idea of Operation Payback to the task force because of its ability to operate in innovative ways. "Most of the people buying crack didn't live in their neighborhood."

The investigation started by identifying key players in the gang, then building cases against them and other chronic offenders working with them within the organization. Third Precinct Inspector Lucy Gerold gave up several officers to the task force for several months, but she couldn't explain to angry residents why arrests of street-level drug dealers and prostitutes were dropping during that time.

Lt. Andrew Smith, head of the task force, said his officers and agents are often expected to work 24-hour days. Police precincts can't afford to give up officers to work on such complex cases, and it's important to keep the same task force members working surveillance and wiretaps, he said. The overtime bill is sizable, but a significant chunk of the tab is offset by their federal partners on the task force and additional state and federal funding, he said.

"I've been told it costs 2 to 3 million dollars to lock somebody up for a homicide, and I know for a fact we've prevented many homicides," Smith said.

Immediate results

Street-level crime immediately dropped 6 percent in the areas of Phillips targeted by Operation Payback, Gerold said. But some of the drug dealing has returned to the neighborhood, frustrating Gerold and residents.

In 2007, the task force made 167 arrests, recovered 94 guns and produced cases that led to 93 federal and state charges. E.K. Wilson, spokesman for the Minneapolis office of the FBI, said that working with the task force "is a huge part of our violent crime program, our gang program specifically. It is a Minneapolis Police Department task force, they started it in 2005. But we've been on board with them from the start."

Again, the idea is to build and evaluate cases and refer those that make the most sense to the federal system, Wilson said. Three FBI agents work full time on the task force.

"It gives us a way to assist our local partners, but it also gives us a way to address our gang program and our gang responsibilities," Wilson said. "It goes to our organized crime roots."

Gangs cross state lines in running their drug and gun businesses, federal officials said. They even cross national borders. Federal agents gain local cops' knowledge of what is happening on the streets, Wilson said. Local police gain resources like the FBI's national crime lab and tap into national and international databases.

'Winning the war'

Jim Graham, an activist and resident of Phillips for 40 years, saw firsthand the damage the Rolling 60s Crips did in his neighborhood. The gang often recruited what he called Cub Scouts, kids who would act as covers for gang members or run drugs.

"These kids would grow up thinking they were gang members and look up to these guys because they see cars and money," he said.

Stings such as Operation Payback are the most effective way police can attack drug dealing, even though some of it has returned, he said. Besides driving down crime, these efforts increase and improve communication between residents and police, he said.

Graham said efforts to combat crime are similar to fighting a flood.

"You can sandbag, but the water doesn't go down fast enough," he said. "But you are darn happy the water isn't lapping over the levees. I think Phillips is winning the war."

dchanen@startribune.com • 612-673-4465 jwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-7428