Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Minnesota Gang Task Force: Why don’t we learn from past corruption?

The Minnesota Gang Task Force has been under fire for misconduct that includes the personal use of confiscated property and money taken during raids. Over 30 officers participated in the Minnesota Gang Task Force from 13 law enforcement agencies. Based on recent reports a core group of bad apples is ruining the reputation of the entire team. Andy Luger is heading up the review, along with retired FBI agent John Engelhof, said, "Perhaps 10 or more lost their way and engaged in conduct that never would have been tolerated at their home agencies." The investigation into the misconduct by the Minnesota Gang Task Force brings back memories of the corruption that plagued Los Angeles when corruption was discovered in the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) anti-gain unit had over 70 officers in the Rampart Division implicated in unprovoked shootings, unprovoked beatings, planting evidence, and other activities deemed inappropriate during the late 1990's.

What prompts cops to abuse their position of power? I recall the movie American Gangster where an Essex County detective Richie Roberts unwittingly unearths corruption in the joint narcotics task force established by the Federal government while investigating, arresting, and prosecuting reputed heroin importer Frank Lucas in the 1970's. Another story, although fictional, brings to light cops skirting the line in the television series The Shield. The Shield spun the tale of a special task force located in "The Barn" did what was "needed" to keep the streets clean of crime while breaking several laws themselves.

Even though I have never been involved with a gang task force or law enforcement, I understand their job is difficult at times. The difficult times can be heightened when the officer is working undercover. The undercover officer has to work within the gangland lifestyle while remembering that he/she is an officer. The duality of this role has to be extremely taxing. Yet, no matter how taxing the dual role is it does not absolve misconduct undertaken. To assist the gang task force oversight is required but based on the audit conducted on the Minnesota Gang Task force the "agency lacked internal controls to safeguard seized and forfeited property or track its finances" (Associated Press).

One has to wonder why misconduct continues to take place when cities establish gang task forces. The lack of learning and establishment of a framework to deter misconduct astounds me. Yesterday, a former member of the Minnesota Gang Task Force filed a whistleblower lawsuit. According to the lawsuit, Sgt. Kelly O'Rourke informed his supervisors of "improper evidence handling and illegal activity within the unit, but they ignored his pleas and then retaliated against him" (Star Tribune). Allegations have been levied against Sgt. O'Rourke that he participated in using seized property as well. Whether or not Sgt. O'Rourke raised concerns or used property himself a bigger question looms. The bigger question is why the founders of the Minnesota Gang Task Force did not learn from past police corruption scandals to ensure the safety of the public, the officers, and accurate reporting and accountability of all property and money seized?

Scandals like this is what makes lives of honest cops tougher and raises public skepticism when asked by the police to assist in ongoing investigations. Hopefully the next city to establish a gang task force will learn from Minnesota, and other cities, and public perception of police will improve toward similar task forces.