Ramblings of Anna Pratt, Twin Cities journalist

Archive for August 2009

Metro Gang Strike Force: “Bad actions overshadow the good actions”

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Here’s a story I wrote for the TC Daily Planet about a legislative hearing centering on the Metro Gang Strike Force, which was recently shut down.

Metro Gang Strike Force: “Bad actions overshadow the good actions”


“It’s a deeply disappointing and disturbing story, in which the bad actions overshadow the good actions,” James Nobles, the legislative auditor who blew the whistle on the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force told a legislative hearing Wednesday.

MGSF, a multijurisdictional unit that formed in 2005, was shut down in June following a report from Nobles, detailing problems in the way the unit accounted for seized and forfeited property. He and other speakers at the August 26 hearing at the state capitol underscored the need for greater oversight to combat gang and drug activity and to protect citizens’ rights.

The strike force didn’t properly inventory or secure items that were confiscated. Cars that had been taken were transferred to a used car lot and put up for sale. “It was just plain sloppy. There were no records,” he said. “They weren’t properly identified and accounted for.”

A stump grinder and wood-chipper, among other things, are some of the more unusual items which were taken, and don’t seem to have a criminal connection. Out of 545 people who should’ve been notified about their property being seized, only 202 were informed. “Why did [officers] take so many flat-screen TVs? We were as befuddled as you,” said Nobles. “What went wrong here wasn’t just in bookkeeping but rights of citizens.”

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Gang and Drug Oversight Council and the unit’s advisory board “both fell down,” he said. Because the unit was multijurisdictional, there was no clear leadership, he said. It didn’t get enough financial support, though it’s unclear why the unit was so strapped for cash when it had $1 million sitting in the bank, he said.

More supervision, including collaboration with prosecuting attorneys, is needed to ensure that officers aren’t “going out and taking stuff because they want to,” he stressed.

Andy Luger, a former federal prosecutor who co-chaired a state panel that performed a deeper study into the unit’s wrongdoing, attributed some of the problems to a Depression-era mentality that stuck well after the 2003 round of budget cuts. Some officers engaged in activities that their home agencies would never put up with, he said.

When asked if there was criminal behavior involved, he said, “If you take something that’s not yours and take it home, then it’s a crime. I believe that went on here.”

In his report, he recommends against the use of standalone strike forces unless they have a more active board with an executive committee in charge. Forfeiture shouldn’t be used to fund the force, he urged, adding that statewide forfeiture policies need to be in place while some laws might need to be amended.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion, who first called for investigation into the unit, said MGSF was given too many second chances. However, the hearing wasn’t a time for laying blame on anyone, said representative Debra Hilstrom (district 46B), chair of the House Public Safety Policy Committee. She characterized the state of affairs as “serious, sensitive and volatile,” but legislators will try to figure out where to go from here.

Hilstrom explained that soon, a designated “special master” would be doing more digging into the strike force’s 5,000 files to determine what property needs to be returned. Secondly, a legislative working group will meet with authorities to develop additional recommendations while another investigation from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI may be called for. “We want to make sure this never happens again,” she said.


Written by annapratt

August 28, 2009 at 1:11 pm

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Q&A: Steve Noonan, performing tonight at Brit’s

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Local singer/songwriter Steve Noonan is bringing his colorful melodies to Brit’s Pub tonight at 8 p.m. Backing him up is Nick Salisbury on bass, timmyz on drums and Blair Krivanek on electric guitar.

Noonan’s acoustic guitar-driven songs, which have such poetic titles as I can lead, Far Away and The Light of Day, are easy to listen to, yet meaningful. The lyrics, which touch on universal themes like heartbreak and exhilaration, are brought to life through Noonan’s expressive, full voice. Think Tom Petty, Oasis and Aimee Mann, “stirred and shaken,” as Noonan put it. The outcome is rich and enjoyable.

Noonan, whose self-titled EP was released in March, said that his musical influences stretch back to the 70s, following with the postmodern British bands of the 80s and some current artists like John Shanks and The Matrix. The singer/songwriter honed his musical talents at the Boston-based Berklee School of Music.

Here’s a Q & A that I managed to snag with Noonan this afternoon, via email:

Can you say a little more about how you would describe your work? What kinds of themes do you find yourself dealing with? Any common threads?

I like to think it’s music that has integrity in its melodies, chord changes, and arrangements. I want my songs to be singable to people who hear and like my sound. The themes range from leaving behind a break-up and being happy about it while driving in a convertible, to feeling like I shouldn’t sleep so late because so many people are up earlier performing their various tasks. So, really no common threads song to song.

In addition to your schooling/training and some of the influences you’ve already mentioned, what kinds of experiences have enriched your music and made it what it is?

Seeing other artists play live, their stage presence, and the structure of their songs. I like song that have sections that connect well.

What do you hope people take away from the music and where can people find your EP?

I simply hope people get enjoyment from listening to my songs.  They can order online from Amazon, CDbaby, iTunes, or in-person at the Electric Fetus here in Minneapolis.

How about a little on what you like to do outside of work?

I like sitting in the rays of a setting sun with no wind, with a good ale and good company.

For more information about Steve Noonan or to listen to some sample songs, here’s his myspace page.

Written by annapratt

August 25, 2009 at 2:10 pm

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Identifying gang members in St. Paul

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Here’s my recent story in the TC Daily Planet about how St. Paul labels someone as a gang member.

St.Paul forum sheds light on police “gang member” database


A handful of St. Paul and Ramsey County officials fielded questions during a community meeting on July 28 about how authorities identify “confirmed gang members.” While a St. Paul police spokesperson said the system is based on documented gang activity, some community members believe it’s too subjective.

One major concern is that once a person is labeled as a gang member, rightly or wrongly, there’s no clear way to fight it. His or her name goes into several databases, including one that’s statewide. For those who are put into the system, the label could have lifelong consequences, including legal repercussions (if he or she is ever accused of a crime).

In a recent example, St. Paul used temporary injunctions against 18 members of the warring East Side Boys and Selby Siders as a way to prevent violence at the Rondo Days Festival. The gang members were not to be seen with each other, or to display signs of gang affiliation. At least one gang member was eventually asked to leave the premises, according to police information, and the festival went on peacefully.

While some public officials see that as a sign of success, others say actions such as injunctions may be detrimental, especially for those who have been misidentified. A Pioneer Press article tells the story of 23-year-old Jumoke Cryer, who disputes his confirmed gang status. Cryer, a college student who was among those whose Rondo Days activities were restricted, said he’s being pressured by his family to leave the state, to avoid future problems.

During the meeting, attendee James Shelton offered up a similar account about his son. Shelton said his son has been wrongly accused of being a gang member. However, the purpose of the July 28 meeting at the Hallie Q. Brown Center wasn’t so much to air grievances as to shed light on the process and to hear directly from the decision-makers, according to some of its organizers.

The meeting was billed by organizers as a first step, opening the lines of communication between police and the community. Jeff Martin, who chairs the St. Paul NAACP’s legal redress committee and who kept the meeting on point, said that it was an opportunity for people to “come and learn,” stressing, “Don’t think we can solve everything tonight. We hope to provide information and guidelines.”

Tina McNamara, who leads the St. Paul Police Department’s (SPPD) gang unit, went over the gang identification guidelines. SPPD uses the Pointer System, which was originally developed by the now suspended Metro Gang Strike Force. According to the Strike Force’s website, the database was put together as a “law enforcement tool, an officer safety tool, and as a tool for the judiciary.”

The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) manages this data. Someone who is considered to be a gang member meets at least three of 10 different Pointer criteria, McNamara said. The criteria include admitting to being in a gang, associating with gang members or having related tattoos or symbols.

In addition to observed activities, photos that show someone hanging out with gang members or throwing up hand signs, or being named in a gang document or identified by a reliable source, may be incriminating, she explained. The list only includes those who are least 14 years old and have been convicted of a gross misdemeanor or felony, McNamara said. In response to criticisms that the requirements are vague, she said, “To me, they’re very specific. Police officers document it. It’s documented or observed.” For example, “If someone admits to being in a gang, then they’ve told us.” Further, “Tattoos are something that don’t go away.”

Officers are trained early on in the police academy to identify gang members, she said. But for some community members, it wasn’t comforting, given the fact that there’s no way to contest confirmed gang member status. It’s also unclear what is to become of former gang members. McNamara acknowledged that, “There’s no known protocol for getting off the list. We want to reach out and talk about how to change that.”

Nekima Levy-Pounds, an associate law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said some of the requirements are subjective. “What if someone in your family is involved with a gang and you may not be, but you’re observed to associate with that family member? Or you get into a situation where you’re in a photo with a gang member?” She also touched on community concerns centered on racial profiling, raising the issue of accountability.

Too often, African American teens and young adults end up on the list. SPPD assistant police chief Nancy Di Perna said the SPPD collects and vets data before it goes anywhere else. Commanders in the Special Investigations Unit review the information, she said. “Is it infallible? No.” The question goes beyond the scope of the gang topic, she said. It’s about what the community wants police officers to be, she said. They’re given a lot of discretion: “I can’t tell you that there’s a system in place to review every report and make sure someone isn’t lying. There has to be trust.”

Phil Carruthers, an assistant county attorney, clarified that in Minnesota it’s not illegal to be a gang member. “There may be implications, but you have not committed a crime by being on the list,” he said. “There has to be a crime done for the benefit of the gang.” Gang members may face increased penalties for committing a crime. “If someone is a gang member and is on probation for a felony, associating with other gang members may violate his or her probation,” he said.

A claim that someone is no longer involved in a gang is the type of thing that gets raised in trial. “It becomes a defense,” he said. “Defenses are available to raise issues. That’s why people are afforded counsel.”

Written by annapratt

August 12, 2009 at 4:04 pm

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