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Behind the scenes with the gang strike force

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Gang arrests
Alleged members of a street gang wait for a court hearing.
Photo by Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

The now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force was battling a growing threat from a Latino street gang, according to the unit's latest internal report.  

A 2008 annual report obtained by MPR News says the metro unit was supplying criminal gang information to most of the rest of the state shortly before it was shut down. 

The report also shows for the first time that two federal agents were part of the unit. 

The 40-page report prepared by gang strike force leaders for the group's advisory board paints a glowing picture of the unit's activities last year. It claims that the strike force is "nationally recognized as one of the most successful multi-jurisdictional task forces in the country."

That's in sharp contrast with the findings of a legislative auditor's report, which criticized the unit for sloppy oversight of seized property. State officials shut down the strike force last month, saying it had lost credibility.

But the 2008 report says the unit made more than 600 arrests, seized more than 100 guns, 20 cars and more than $400,000 in cash. 

Bud Shaver, John Harrington
St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington, left, listens with West St. Paul Police Chief Bud Shaver, chairman of the Metro Gang Strike Force Advisory Board during a meeting regarding the Strike Force's future on June 30, 2009.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

It also shows, for the first time, that two agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement were working with the squad. A lawsuit filed in Minneapolis last week questioned the state unit's role in federal immigration matters. 

Most importantly, though, the report documents what the unit was working on behind the scenes in its last full year of existence.

A third of the report describes one of the strike force's main police efforts -- creating a computer database that includes the names of, and information on, nearly 17,000 gang members as of January 2009. 

The report says the strike force made documenting gangs one of its top priorities last year. As a result, the number of people in the gang database grew by about 13 percent.

A summary of the database also says that the southern California-based Los Surenos gang had grown by more than 20 percent in Minnesota last year. 

The gang surpassed the long-standing and well known Vice Lords as the second largest street gang in the state. The report lists the Gangster Disciples as the state's largest gang, with nearly 2,600 members. 

The rankings say there were more than 800 documented members of the Los Surenos gang in Minnesota earlier this year. The strike force played a role in rounding up dozens of them last summer in an immigration sweep, and more than 50 of them may be subject to deportation.

Officials and police who used to be involved in the strike force declined to talk about the gang's presence in Minnesota.

But a California gang expert says she's not surprised by the report's numbers. Jorja Leap is an adjunct professor of social welfare at UCLA,  and tracks Los Surenos.

"Right now they are not well known, but I already think they are a big, big entity," said Leap. "They are important. They are a force of nature."

And she says police are responding to that growth.

"Law enforcement knowledge, awareness, operations, strategies have also become increasingly sophisticated, so their knowledge is matching the growth of Sorenos and other large entities like Sorenos," said Leap.

The gang unit report also offers an unprecedented look at how widespread gang activity may be in Minnesota. Police in 76 counties used or contributed to the strike force's database last year.

Database hits came from some surprising places --  law enforcement in Mille Lacs County used the database more than 600 times, more than police in Rochester, Duluth and Moorhead combined.

Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren says the report does reflect law enforcement activity there, but said he didn't want to talk about the database, other than to say it was a valuable tool for police.

But like many other aspects of the Gang Strike Force story, the report contains contradictions.

It says that an officer with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency was assigned to the 37-officer task force, although DEA officials deny that.

Sources familiar with the strike force also say that descriptions of major criminal cases detailed in the report actually reflect only minor involvement by the gang unit. They said other law enforcement agencies could have done the work as well.

The author of the report, Minneapolis Police Lt. Jim Heimerl, was the assistant commander of the embattled strike force. Heimerl declined to discuss the report, but confirmed he wrote it. It was finished in February, and posted on a state Web site in late June.

The report identifies dozens of officers, agents and deputies by name. Heimerl says the report shouldn't be public, saying disclosure may endanger officers' safety because of ongoing investigations. St. Paul's police union has filed a request that the report be removed from the state's Web site. 

A spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety says the state continues to maintain the gang database, although its use has declined since the strike force was disbanded.

Editor's note: The names of the Metro Gang Strike Force members were redacted (blacked out) in the pdf copy of the report linked to this story, due to specific and credible law enforcement concerns over disclosure of their identities.