State shuts down interim gang strike force

Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion.
Photo provided

State officials shut down the Metro Gang Strike Force today, just a week after they kick-started the embattled gang unit, hoping to overcome a string of scandals.

State Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion announced the closure after new revelations about police that ran the unit.

MPR reporter Tim Nelson discussed the case with All Things Considered host Steven John.

Q: What happened today?

A. Several things. First, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said this morning that he was pulling his department out of the gang strike force. It was down to only eight officers as it was, and his deputy, Chris Omodt, was the commander that was supposed to bridge the old gang strike force and a new, temporary unit.

That seems to have been kind of the straw that broke the camel's back. A couple hours later, Commissioner Michael Campion came out of his office and said he was simply abolishing the unit.

Q: What reasons did they give?

A: They gave several, but there's one overriding reason, what could be referred to as "the elephant in the room."

The West St. Paul police chief, Bud Shaver, chairs the board that runs the gang unit. And a report just released by the St. Paul police department says his daughter's boyfriend was a suspect in a home invasion in Hudson, Wis., earlier this year. The report says the boyfriend may have even used a car owned by Shaver in the crime.

According to the report, the chief told investigators that he'd given the car to his daughter, hoping it might get her out of trouble. But the report says, Chief Shaver not only told the gang unit he'd like to have his daughter tracked down and arrested -- to help her drug problem -- but he also asked them not to seize his car if she had it.

Q. And the gang unit already had trouble with car seizures?

A: That's right. Seizing vehicles from suspects is one of their crime-fighting tools. So it appears that somehow, this gang unit wound up helping to track down the chief's daughter on public time, and that the chief may have asked for special treatment when they found her.

Q: Has Chief Shaver had anything to say about this incident?

A: Not so far. I called and e-mailed him this morning, and he hasn't responded. I asked the public safety commissioner about the incident, and the commissioner said the public would have good reason to doubt the integrity of law enforcement involved in the strike force if this were true. And he said that this was part of what had gone wrong with the gang unit.

Q: Was Chief Shaver's daughter arrested?

A: Yes, she was arrested on a drug charge back in January.

Q: With the gang strike force apparently suffering a fatal blow, what is this going to mean for fighting gang crime in the Twin Cities?

A: That's a very hard thing to say. This unit was supposed to intervene at things like the annual Hmong Soccer Tournament, and other gatherings where gang conflicts might break out in public. So the fact that these events go on in a routine way may be proof that they were preventing crime.

Q: In its 12 years, what kind of success has the unit shown with actual arrests and prosecutions?

A: There are some serious questions about the integrity of the evidence this unit gathered. And that might, for instance, raise questions about the cases it gave to prosecutors. You could conceivably have cases built on bad evidence, and prosecutors are obliged to make defendants aware of that if it comes to light.

I called the county attorney's offices in Washington, Ramsey, Dakota and Hennepin counties, and asked them about that. Not one said they were reconsidering even a single case in light of the Gang Strike Force scandals.

I've also called some of the most prominent defense attorneys in town, like Joe Friedberg and Earl Grey and Kevin Short -- even the federal public defender. The gang unit just isn't on their radar. One of them even told me he's been retained by a police union to represent some of the gang strike force officers, if need be, since the FBI is already investigating.

On the other hand, when I asked federal authorities if they had gang convictions that might be in danger from this case, all I got was a "no comment."

The other thing to remember is that even at its peak, this was a 34-officer unit, and there are more than 3,000 police officers in the metro area. So this was just a very small part of the police work being done in the Twin Cities.

Q: With this unit going away, will those joint law enforcement efforts just fall away as well?

A: The public safety commissioner said he's sending all the gang officers back to their home agencies, so they can still be out on the street, working.

He said federal, state and county authorities don't have to have a separate unit to work togther, and that his agency was ready to help any way it can.