People who claim the disbanded Metro Gang Strike Force illegally seized their property or violated their rights may be eligible for part of a $3 million legal settlement announced Wednesday.
The settlement is one of the largest in the history of the League of Minnesota Trust Fund, the insurance arm that represents nearly all of Minnesota's cities and represented the Strike Force's oversight board during mediation of a lawsuit filed by alleged victims of the antigang unit's misconduct.
U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen still must approve the settlement, which calls for appointment of a special master to evaluate claims against the Strike Force and decide how much to compensate the people who complained.
The deal calls for any leftover money to pay to train law enforcement officers statewide in proper procedures and effective community policing strategies, including how to practice racial and ethnic sensitivity.
Attorneys fees are to be paid separately, as determined by the court, but they would not come from the $3 million fund.
"The system has worked for all of us," Minneapolis attorney Randy Hopper, who represented Strike Force victims, said at a news conference Wednesday.
Manila (Bud) Shaver, the West. St. Paul police chief who is chairman of the Strike Force oversight board, praised the settlement.
"What are you going to do?" he asked. "It's a problem, it's a mess, you have to have some resolution to it, and for lack of a better term, this is the best compromise all the way around."
He added, "It opens the door for closure, and we need to move forward."
But even as they announced the settlement, neither side was willing to cede ground on what should be the legacy of the Strike Force, which was shut down in July 2009 after 11 years.
In court papers filed Wednesday, the attorneys who sued the force called it a "run-amok, rogue police force" and an "ugly chapter in Minnesota history." Meanwhile, in their own filings, Strike Force attorneys said the unit did "important and well-thought-out investigations of suspected gang members" which "benefited the community."
Kori Land, attorney for the Strike Force board, said afterward that she was "not saying that nothing was done wrong on individual cases, but as a whole, we're not admitting any of the claims that were made in the lawsuit."
The suit was filed July 30, 2009, and mediated by U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan. "He added a voice of reason," to the proceedings, said Phil Fishman, a Bloomington attorney who worked with Hopper on the suit.
The Strike Force unraveled over a period of about 10 months. In a preliminary audit begun in October 2008, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety uncovered financial mismanagement. That prompted an investigation by the legislative auditor, who reported in May 2009 that money was missing, evidence had been routinely mishandled and seized vehicles had been improperly forfeited.
An FBI investigation was launched, and in July 2009 the Strike Force was permanently shut down. The next month, a state investigation found that Strike Force members took home property seized in raids. Earlier this month, a federal grand jury indicted Jason Andersen, a former Strike Force member and Minneapolis police officer, for allegedly kicking a black teenager in the head.
The Hennepin County attorney's office is now overseeing an investigation of Strike Force members for possible crimes under state law.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit included Zelaido Rivera Garcia, who attended Wednesday's news conference. Garcia has said that when he went to the Minneapolis impound lot to pick up his car in 2008, Strike Force officers showed up, seized his cash -- though the officers never alleged he had committed a crime -- and reported him to immigration authorities.
"They were very aggressive. ... We had not done anything," he said. "We were just trying to retrieve our car. We all need to be treated like human beings."
Responding to news of the settlement, Garcia said, "We feel very happy."
Officers to be trained
Unlike class-action settlements where all members of the class would get an equal payout, in this case each claim will be evaluated by the special master, according to attorney Land. Individuals who were victimized by law enforcement officers who were not on the Strike Force will not be covered by the settlement.
The actual filing and processing of claims is expected to begin around the end of this year, both sides said. Hopper and Fishman said possible claimants include about 100 people who called them or a hot line set up by the League of Minnesota Cities. Others are 202 people who lost property to the Strike Force but were not given proper forfeiture papers.
The settlement calls for the training program to be designed by the Minnesota Police Officers Standards and Training Board, the police and sheriff's offices named in the suit, and a legal representative of Strike Force victims. Topics are to include civil rights, community policing, forfeitures, racial and ethnic sensitivity, and proper procedures for handling and seizing property.
Kathy Wuorinen, assistant St. Paul police chief, said Wednesday, "We're pleased that this chapter, this civil portion in the Metro Gang Strike Force story is closed and that there is a settlement."
As for the training offered under the settlement, she said, "Our officers are highly trained, but we welcome any additional training that will make our officers better."
The lives of Garcia and three others detained by immigration officials in the impound lot raid remain in limbo. They still face deportation proceedings, Fishman said.
He said they should qualify for special visas available to crime victims who have cooperated with law enforcement. But Fishman said that an agency must certify the application and that Minneapolis police and the FBI have refused.
Randy Furst • 612-673-7382