A federal effort designed to dismantle gangs at their core will roll out soon in the Twin Cities, months after the Metro Gang Strike Force was shut down amid allegations of misconduct and evidence mishandling.
The Twin Cities Safe Streets Violent Gang Task Force will be led by the FBI, and will investigate gangs as organized criminal enterprises, using federal tools such as anti-racketeering statutes to take down the whole group by going after its leaders. And unlike the strike force, the FBI says its venture will be tightly managed and funded by the federal government.
"The Gang Strike Force was more of the 'Let's go out and saturate a neighborhood and see who we can stop.' We just don't operate that way with any investigation," said Ralph Boelter, the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Minneapolis. "We're very calculated, very methodical, very thoughtful in what we do."
The FBI has operated gang task forces like this elsewhere since 1992 under its Safe Streets Violent Crime Initiative. With Minnesota's program, there will be 160 FBI violent gang task forces in 37 states, Washington D.C., and the Virgin Islands, according to the agency's Web site.
Authorities are still working out logistics for the Minnesota unit, but the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, police in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and other federal agencies are expected to participate, Boelter said. They hope to start in January.
"I think it's a fresh start," said Michael Campion, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. "It's not the only thing that we are doing here in Minnesota, but it's certainly an opportunity for agencies to get together, and in some cases fill some of the gap."
Campion and others say the FBI-led force isn't a replacement in itself for the disgraced strike force. In fact, Campion has developed a plan for several county-based units called Violent Crime Enforcement Teams with a hoped-for launch in early 2010.
The Metro Gang Strike Force was shut down in July, after a legislative audit and a special panel's review found a lack of financial oversight and seized cash and vehicles that couldn't be accounted for. The FBI is investigating, but no one has been charged.
The special panel review also found that some officers participated in "saturation" details, where police went to suspected gang areas and seized property from people with no gang connections. And it cited a mentality of pursuing seized property and money to fund operations.
B. Todd Jones, U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said the FBI-led task force will have a federal budget and won't have to rely on legislative appropriations or forfeitures. In addition, the FBI will pay for officers' overtime, training, equipment and vehicles. Federal investigative tools will also be available, such as the federal grand jury process and the ability to use wiretaps more often.
Jones called the FBI-led effort a "third tier" in fighting gangs, supplementing local police gang units and the new violent crime units Campion has proposed.
Other federal task forces are also fighting gang activity in Minnesota. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has had a task force since 2004 that uses the gun control act to go after violent offenders. Bernard J. Zapor, special agent in charge of the ATF office in Minnesota, said his team will continue to operate alongside Safe Streets. The Drug Enforcement Administration also has a task force that hones in on drug cases.
Adding Safe Streets to the mix gives the area another option for more wide-ranging investigations.
While federal racketeering cases can be complicated, they let prosecutors charge all of a gang's alleged activity - from drug deals to murders - under one umbrella, essentially alleging that all defendants are responsible for trying to increase the power of the gang, said Thom Mrozek. Mrozek is a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, which has been prosecuting rackeetering-related gang cases for years.
"We can essentially dismantle the leadership of the organization and take many of their operatives off the street in one fell swoop," he said.
In one recent example, 88 members and associates of the Avenues street gang in northeast Los Angeles were named in a racketeering indictment in September that alleged they were part of a criminal enterprise, committing crimes ranging from robbery to the 2008 murder of a Los Angeles sheriff's deputy. Several agencies and task forces were involved in that investigation.
Minnesota doesn't have nearly the level of gang violence as Los Angeles, where the city has an estimated 30,000-40,000 gang members. Minnesota has nearly 2,500 confirmed gang members, based on criteria in the state's gang database.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said he supports the FBI's initiative, but local officers, including his own violent offenders task force, still need to be on the street to keep the community safe. He said the FBI isn't set up to respond to retaliatory violence - like drive-by shootings.
"They are a long-term investigative agency set up to go after long-term structures," he said. "That's not a fault of it; that's the way it's set up and structured."
The FBI agrees both approaches are needed, and the goal is to cooperate and share information with cops on the street. Violent acts, like a drive-by shooting, would be investigated and worked into a larger takedown.
"We will collaborate and we will go after the most violent groups, the most violent ... gangs in the Twin Cities," said Boelter, who ran the FBI's gang task force in Los Angeles for over 2 years. "The Twin Cities needs this."