Bill to restrict gang data passes Senate committee

State Sen. Mee Moua
State Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, has proposed a measure to restrict the use of databases to track potential gang activity in the state.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

A measure to restrict the use of secret police files to fight gang crime in Minnesota passed a key test at the Capitol Friday. The provision is part of the long-running fallout of a police corruption scandal involving the Twin Cities-based Metro Gang Strike Force.

Police in Minnesota use a pair of computer databases to track -- and hopefully disrupt -- gang crime around the state.

One is maintained by the state's Department of Public Safety and is linked to the courts. The people in it all have documented criminal records.

But another list, kept in St. Paul by the Ramsey County Sheriff's office, is drawing increased scrutiny. It's called GangNet, and at one point it included more than 16,000 names.

The trouble isn't who's on it. It's who put the names there.

The scandal-plagued Metro Gang Strike Force has been a significant contributor to the list.

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The gang unit is now the subject of an FBI corruption investigation, and was cut off from state funding last summer. A handful of officers have been accused of stealing evidence, racial profiling and other misdeeds.

Sheriff Fletcher
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher holds up a stack of paper cards that he says law enforcement agencies would be forced to use under a new bill that would ban computer databases of gang members and their associates.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

That's a fatal flaw for the records they kept, such as the GangNet database, according to State Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul.

"I think it is," said Moua. "What is most concerning is that we have children under 14 who are in these databases. Nobody knows whether they are in these databases. That's the problem."

Moua has introduced a measure that would block local police from pooling their gang intelligence. They could still keep tabs on organized crime on a person-by-person basis, but couldn't draw up and share lists of gang members and gang activities.

It's the most controversial provision of a bill Moua is sponsoring that includes a variety of police reforms aimed at cleaning up after the Strike Force scandal.

The bill passed easily through her own Judicial committee earlier this week. But it drew dozens of police and law enforcement officials Friday at a hearing of the State and Local Government Operations and Oversight Committee.

The law enforcement officials argued that the measure is a step backward, after decades of effort to improve surveillance of criminal activity, and efforts to cooperate among hundreds of local police agencies in the state.

They said good recordkeeping is a key tool to fight long-term criminal activity that moves from one police jurisdiction to another.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, one of the founders of the GangNet system, said he recognized there were problems with it.

"I think there are always some tweaks that can be done to the databases," he said, but added that police are already making changes.

After the hearing ended, Fletcher said police don't need new legal restrictions.

"We've purged 6,000 names [from GangNet]. We're conducting juvenile notification. We made a number of concessions to some groups," said Fletcher. "The big issue, the common area is that we should talk about the criteria. What does it take to get into a gang system?"

Republicans tried to strip the restrictions on gang files out of the bill.

Newly elected Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, is a former deputy sheriff and said he knows first-hand how valuable information can be -- so police officers know what they're up against out on the street, if nothing else.

Parry pleaded with his colleagues to defeat Moua's legislation and keep the databases, which have taken years, even decades, to assemble.

"There are probably people in there that shouldn't be on there," said Parry. "I'm more in favor of saying, let's take a look who's there ... let's make sure that those that are on the list are supposed to be on the list. And those that aren't, let's move them off and move forward."

But critics say the Gang Strike Force scandal has raised too many doubts to let law enforcement police themselves.

Nikema Levy Pounds is a University of St. Thomas law professor who is leading a public, but unofficial, examination of local gang fighting efforts. Her group issued a report on the public impact of the strike force scandal late last year.

"I believe if someone's involved in active criminal gang activity, they ought to be involved in mechanisms for addressing that and making sure that people are identified," said Pounds, "but under specific circumstances, and safeguarding other people from being racially profiled or being unfairly swept into a gang database."

Pounds said the only way to assure criminal intelligence efforts were being done right was to start fresh and let the police put the scandal behind them.

Moua's bill now goes on to another committee, which would be its last stop before a floor vote.