No charges filed against gang strike force members

Hennepin County attorney
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced Wednesday that he would not file charges against any members of the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

After more than a year of sometimes shocking revelations and repeated investigations of the disbanded Metro Gang Strike Force, there will be no charges filed in Minnesota courts against the police officers who made up the force.

On Wednesday, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced he didn't have enough evidence to pursue criminal charges against former task force members, effectively ending the state's investigation. But the metro gang strike force story still hasn't come to a close.

State officials shut the strike force down last year, as investigations found numerous indications of misconduct by many of its 73 employees.

Inquiries led by the state auditor, a formal federal prosecutor and a retired FBI agent found the strike force couldn't account for thousands of dollars of cash and seized property.

The investigations found evidence some officers were claiming seized property -- including cars and TVs -- for themselves, or selling it to friends and family. Investigators found officers had been snooping improperly through police files, and may have been shaking down illegal immigrants.

Earlier this summer, agencies behind the disbanded strike force agreed to pay $3 million dollars to people who claimed they were victims of the unit's misconduct.

Freeman said there just wasn't enough evidence to prosecute any of the former members of the strike force.

"You know, I can understand that some people may question our decision," he said. "And ultimately it's mine."

Freeman released a 19-page report detailing the many challenges his investigation couldn't overcome. One big one was the strike force's dismal record-keeping.

"They didn't keep track of inventory. Money came in on which case, which officers, notices were given in forfeiture, what happened to the money, what happened to the property," Freeman said. "All of those kind of inventory records that any police department maintains weren't done."

People inside the unit tried to destroy some papers as the strike force was being shut down, but Freeman says a search of those shredded records didn't come up with anything incriminating. And he says he doesn't think unit members deliberately kept shoddy records.

But regardless of intent, the poor paperwork meant Freeman's investigators didn't have any evidence to work with. So they turned to the former officers themselves, and found another dead end. Freeman says many of the unit's members, including its commander, refused to cooperate.

"He and the other folks they got Fifth Amendment rights just like the rest of us do. And I'm frustrated because I've always felt that police officers and prosecutors have a special duty to clean up this mess and exonerate officers who were doing their job," he said. "I wish folks had been a little bit more candid."

Without a smoking gun in the form of paperwork, and without a whistleblower willing to point a finger, Freeman says there's nothing he can do.

"We don't have any evidence that people put money in their pocket and walked out. None. We just don't have that," he said. "We have a lot of evidence didn't follow police procedures that are followed in good departments, but no, I can't say that we know that criminal actions were done."

That doesn't mean former Metro Gang Strike Force members are in the clear. St. Paul Police spokesman Andy Skoogman says now that Freeman has stepped aside, the department's own investigation can go forward.

"Now that we know there will be no criminal charges in this case we can move forward with four internal affairs investigations," Skoogman said. "Those investigations will determine whether or not any policy or procedural violations occurred."

Minneapolis police wouldn't comment on the issue.

FBI spokesman Steve Warfield said federal charges still may be coming from the U.S. Department of Justice.

"If federal charges are filed they would be not widespread but they would be more specific or related to an isolated incident if they're filed at all," Warfield said. "It would be more or less a specific incident or something like that. It wouldn't an indictment of the entire organization of any kind."

Meanwhile, Freeman says the right procedures are being followed, even though it may look like criminal behavior is going unpunished.

"I think the public can feel that we've all learned a lesson about the standards we need to follow and what we need to do," he said. "But I would commit a worse crime if I charged somebody and I didn't have the evidence I gotta have."

Freeman says he would follow the same standard for any citizen.

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