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Gang Strike Force report may prompt seizure law changes

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Gang Strike Force Hearing
Legislators hear testimony about the Metro Gang Strike Force on Wednesday, August 26, 2009.
MPR Photo / Bob Collins

State lawmakers are considering changing seizure laws after two reports found wrongdoing by some members of the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force. 

Four legislative committees heard testimony Wednesday about the Strike Force. Reporter Toni Randolph has more. 

A good portion of the more than three-hour hearing was a review of what has already been made public about the Metro Gang Strike Force: missing cars, missing cash and other items that may have been seized improperly by police officers. Those revelations came from a report last week from a former FBI agent and former federal prosecutor, and from a report earlier this year from legislative auditor James Nobles. 

Members of the legislative committees wanted to know why the problems didn't surface sooner than this year. DFL Representative Michael Paymar of St. Paul asked Nobles if the advisory board that oversaw the strike force knew what was going on. 

"It is my impression from having attended two board meetings, but also we reviewed all the board minutes, board members were aware that there were issues," Nobles said. 

The board that oversaw the strike force was made up of city and county law enforcement officials from the Twin Cities area. 

A 2000 report authored by the assistant commander of the Strike Force -- obtained earlier this month by Minnesota Public Radio News -- painted a glowing picture of the strike force's work and did not mention any of the problems later unearthed by investigators. 

A number of recommendations have been made to address those issues, including asking lawmakers to review the state's forfeiture laws to make sure they have the oversight to protect citizens' rights. DFL Representative Debra Hilstrom of Brooklyn Center moderated yesterday's hearing for the two House and two Senate committees. She said all four committees agreed to look at the seizure laws even though the Legislature is not in session. 

"We don't come back to the Legislature until February," she said. "So there's a lot of time between now and February and we need to make sure this issue is resolved and that we're moving forward to make certain that, again, it doesn't happen again." 

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said yesterday that he wants to revive the Strike Force with tighter controls and suggested that there's no need for a major revision of the state's forfeiture laws.

"I think it needs to reconstitute it in a way that will be accountable and effective," he said. "It's not just that there was lack of proper governance structures around it. The people involved also just didn't use common sense. There isn't some mystery around cops not taking stuff home and using it for personal use. You don't need to have a new law that says when you arrest someone don't take their stuff and then take it home and use it." 

The FBI is investigating the allegations involving the Metro Gang Strike Force.