23 drug groups tarnished by gang unit's troubles

FARMINGTON, Minn. (AP) -- When Sgt. Joe Leko's officers collared a recent suspect, a methamphetamine addict, the cops were the ones who left her Farmington home emotional.

FARMINGTON, Minn. (AP) -- When Sgt. Joe Leko's officers collared a recent suspect, a methamphetamine addict, the cops were the ones who left her Farmington home emotional.

The single mother they'd arrested lived in squalor, with dog feces piled on the floor and syringes lying out in the open. She had two children, both younger than 5.

"That was tough for the guys to go in and see that. ... I almost had guys on the brink of tears," said Leko, the agent in charge of the Dakota County Drug Task Force. "Maybe this is the rock bottom for her, and this will force her to get the help that she needs."

Narcotics work is no easy job, but it's one that has benefited from the pooled resources of 12 law enforcement agencies across Dakota County and one in Scott County.

The task force of 16 officers is one of 23 state-funded groups in Minnesota formed across jurisdictions to investigate drug crimes. Officers go undercover on drug buys, hustle up paid informants, interview suspects after routine traffic arrests and perform surveillance, hoping to catch dealers in action.


Now, this and other drug task forces across the state face a new challenge: public relations.

Officers assigned to interjurisdictional groups say their own reputations have been tarnished by the infamy of a separate unit, the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force. They're nervous about securing continued state funding and public trust at a time when questions about these groups are being raised.

"It's just a black eye for everybody," Leko said.

The gang strike force drew members from the Twin Cities area, including the Ramsey County sheriff's office and the St. Paul Police Department, but was disbanded after a probe found strike force officers took televisions and jewelry and seized cash from people with no gang ties. A legislative audit also found that the gang unit lacked internal controls over seized and forfeited property and cash.

Several lawsuits have been filed, including one from a Minneapolis sergeant who said he was removed from the unit after complaining to a superior officer about the improper handling of evidence. The FBI is investigating claims that up to 12 officers seized cash, cars and assorted items for personal use.

Andy Skoogman, a spokesman for Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion, said the department has responded by evaluating its oversight of the drug task forces, hand in hand with the office of the state legislative auditor. An announcement on changes could come within the next two weeks.

"There will be certainly some general guidelines, protocols that all of them will follow," Skoogman said. "And the reality is, a lot of them are following them now."

Sgt. Brian Mueller, commander with the Washington County Narcotics Task Force, grimaces at the thought of one group's foibles being associated with another's. His task force has won praise in some of the same areas the gang strike force stumbled.


Every year, a review team affiliated with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety issues report cards rating the performance of the state's 23 drug task forces. The department's Office of Justice Programs uses them when divvying up state and federal funding, which account for about 40 percent of the various task forces' operational budgets.

Funding or donated labor from member agencies -- the county sheriff's office, local police departments -- make up most of the rest.

In its reviews, Washington County recently stood out for its financial controls over money seized from drug transactions, which is sometimes used, in turn, to pay confidential informants.

"We have several different layers of security involved in that," Mueller said. "There are a lot of people doing a lot of good work in narcotics enforcement."

In fact, his team is growing. Through a partnership with the Minnesota Army National Guard, the Washington County task force added a crime analyst who helps research cases and examines crime and drug trends.

In southwestern Minnesota, the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force has responded to feedback in its reviews by tweaking its handling of seized currency. Unless used as evidence, the money is now deposited instead of stored, said Worthington Chief of Police Michael Cumiskey, who sits on the task force's oversight board.

The task force draws its members from Pipestone, Rock, Murray and Nobles counties, but evidence is maintained at a command center in Worthington, where Cumiskey can easily monitor what's been confiscated from suspects.

"I can walk back anytime and ask the commander to show me what he has," he said.


Eric Werner, a captain with the Burnsville Police Department, has chaired the Dakota County Drug Task Force's advisory board for the past year. He and Leko recently attended a joint committee hearing at the state Capitol to testify about their group's accomplishments and the need for continued state and federal funding.

Given all that had gone on with the gang strike force, the discussion was difficult, at best.

At another presentation to a community group, "the term 'task force' was the bad word in the room," Werner said.

He'd like to prove otherwise. He calls the Dakota County Drug Task Force one of the top performers in the state, and a leader among the 23 that operate throughout Minnesota.

In state reviews, Dakota County stands out for volume. Task force members last year initiated 139 search warrants -- about 10 percent of the search warrants filed by drug task forces in Minnesota.

Those searches paid off: In 2008 it reported seizing more than 200 pounds of marijuana, double the recent state average. Officers also took in nearly 20 pounds of methamphetamine and about 8 pounds of cocaine. The street value of the narcotics confiscated exceeded $8.2 million, and $12 million the year before that.

If the task force has bragging rights, however, the bust its members are perhaps most proud of nabbed 154,000 doses of the drug Ecstasy, a hallucinogen and stimulant popular with nightclub-goers. The single case accounted for all but 3,000 of the doses seized last year in Minnesota.

Leko attributed some of those gains to the close working relationship with federal agencies such as the FBI and with police departments in Dakota and Scott counties.


When police patrols arrest a suspect for drug possession, the case is later forwarded to the task force for follow-up. With some persuasion, that suspect can be turned into an informant, sometimes in exchange for money or a lighter court sentence. In all, the task force initiated or followed up on more than 660 arrests last year.

The county drug task forces are eager to show that they are not running loose operations. For instance, the Metro Gang Strike Force had one employee to maintain inventory records, serve as custodian of the property room, oversee two checking accounts, control funds for paid informants and maintain case files while also answering phones and performing all the clerical work.

The Dakota County Drug Task Force, in contrast, has a full-time technician who does little else but log evidence. The technician is a retired police officer, Leko said.

An advisory board made up of the 13 member agencies closely supervises task force operations, Werner said, meeting monthly to review its financials and intelligence briefings. A new board chair is chosen every year.

An outside firm conducts additional financial audits annually. And the Dakota County attorney's office, which has a representative on the board, reviews the task force's procedures for legality.

Still, it's likely changes, perhaps significant ones, are ahead. Legislative committees have already begun examining the state's seizure and forfeiture law to see if it needs to be revamped.


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press,

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