Moua backs off gang database restrictions

State Sen. Mee Moua
Minnesota state Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The St. Paul lawmaker who was pushing to crack down on secret police files in the wake of the Gang Strike Force scandal has backed off that effort.

Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, asked a Senate committee Friday afternoon to give official state sanction for police to build and share databases on gang activity. Senators voted just last week to effectively ban the files.

The reversal comes amid intense pressure by police to reinstate their intelligence gathering and cross-border communication work. Moua had led an effort at the Capitol to curtail that.

It was part of a legislative response to corruption and misconduct allegations made against an elite gang-fighting unit known as the Metro Gang Strike Force.

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The Strike Force -- which is under investigation by the FBI -- used a pair of databases, one state and one local, to track and fight street gang activity.

Critics said the thousands of people who are named on the lists are disproportionately minorities, and that the database could be used as a basis for racial profiling. They also complained that there is no due process for being added or removed from the list.

Moua said she's been convinced of the ultimate value of the files, and will settle for a new oversight committee to monitor the databases.

"Out of consideration for law enforcement, who said that they're willing to continue to work with me to put in place the appropriate oversight, I am willing to work with law enforcement to continue to equip them at each local agency with the ability to keep these databases," said Moua.

Law enforcement was generally pleased with today's concessions.

Police say criminal gangs are adding new levels of sophistication to their organizations -- thanks in part to the Internet.

"They have a lot of intelligence on their side, and what we want to do is keep the playing field level," said inspector Mike Martin, commander of the 4th Police Precinct in Minneapolis. He's also a long-time gang investigator and was at Friday's Public Safety Budget Division committee hearing.

"They can use these social networking sites to intimidate each other, to threaten each other, to bolster their own gang affiliation," said Martin. "They actually use them -- Twitter and some of these systems -- to meet up to send messages out when they get stopped by the police, so it becomes an officer safety issue."

The database issue is part of a package of police reforms moving through the Legislature this spring. It has another committee stop before it hits the Senate floor.