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Minnesota's new Criminal Gang Strike Force has been in business for two months, with 40 full-time agents dedicated to tracking the activities of the Twin Cities' suspected criminal gangs. That effort is now going statewide as the Strike Force gets ready to set up regional bureaus in cities like Duluth and Moorhead. Politicians say the anti-gang effort is long overdue in Minnesota's small towns and rural areas, but some local law enforcement experts say they're not so sure outstate Minnesota requires a big-city-style anti-gang offensive.
WHEN THE BODY of teenager William Booth turned up in a mine dump north of Grand Rapids two months ago, local residents were stunned to learn the killing might have been "gang-related." Booth was stabbed in the head and shot in the chest, allegedly by fellow gang members. A local man has since admitted to stabbing Booth, and he's agreed to testify against other alleged gang members. State politicians like attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Skip Humphrey have held up the Booth killing as an ominous sign.
Humphrey: Gang violence has hit Minneapolis-St. Paul hardest, but, tragically, that gang violence has spread like prairie fire to all regions of our state. Last month's homicide in Grand Rapids is a tragic reminder of the spread of that kind of gang violence.Grand Rapids-area authorities say, as far as they know, the Booth case was NOT connected to criminal street gangs outside of Itasca County. In Duluth, police chief Scott Lyons says he doesn't think the Booth killing proves big-city gangs are taking over northeastern Minnesota.
Lyons: From my personal perspective living here, being a police officer for 20-something years, I wouldn't have used that as a springboard for something. But that's me, and that's the folks down in the political capital, in deciding what pushes people's buttons.But up the hill from police headquarters, some residents of Duluth's Central Hillside neighborhood say city authorities are "in denial" about the extent of the gang problem. Block club captain Jerry Pollard says the big-city gangs are moving in and intimidating local families.
Pollard: We had one group that we're currently having trouble with that lived in Chicago that moved - or was forced to move - to Minneapolis, lived there just a month, then they come up here, and they don't want anybody to know they're from Chicago. And since they've been here on Fourth Street they've pulled knives on people, they've tried to take over so they can run everybody else out and have a base of operations just like they do in the big cities, and now they want to do it up here.Pollard's neighbor, Francine Enderly, says ever since the newcomers flashed a gun at one of her daughters, she's been afraid to let her kids play outside her own front door.
Enderly: They call me a white bitch, and tell me they'll kick my white ass, and one of them has pulled out a great big knife (Kaste: Where did this happen?) Right here!Chief Lyons says he doesn't deny there's gun- and drug-running between Duluth and places like Chicago, but he worries that some residents latch onto the word "gang" to justify the racial tensions with black newcomers.
Lyons: We see that a lot, where people always want to label something. In the communities of color there's always a concern - as there should be - that the police, or in this case, the citizens in the city, may say "this was gang related" because they saw a person of color, or somebody dressed a certain way... and that's, unfortunately, maybe that's just part of the reality of living in northeastern Minnesota where the population is so predominantly white.Still, Lyons welcomes the new Duluth-area gang strike force, and he even serves on the statewide criminal gang oversight committee. He says he hopes the strike force will be able to combat what he says is the outstate's most pressing "gang" problem: what he calls "gang wannabes" - kids and young adults who imitate gangsters in the mass media and then use weapons to prove they're serious.
Lyons: We have "Vice Lords" in Ashland, Grand Rapids, or wherever. It's just the neat thing for kids to say they're part of these groups. And that isn't really what we're going to tackle with our gang strike force, but I hope as we get through the first year, and we'll look back on these things and say, "you know, that's a bigger problem with the youth wannabe gangs than we thought" - you know; a gang's a gang, no matter how you want to identify it from a gang perspective.Lyons may not get his wish. State statute defines the strike force's target very narrowly as individuals who've been convicted of gross misdemeanors or felonies and can be shown to be committing crimes for the benefit of an organized gang. That definition leaves out a lot of potentially dangerous suspects, even the suspects in the Grand Rapids homicide would probably not fall under the strike force's jurisdiction. The strike force's statewide commander, Ron Ryan, says his agency is NOT meant to help cash-strapped, small-town police departments keep tabs on run-of-the-mill juvenile crime.
Ryan: The people that might be critics of this situation have suggested exactly that - that it could be a money grab. I don't see it as that, which is why I'm involved in it, but I do see the temptation.... That's something we've had to work to: identify the gang activity here or give it up; give it to somebody else.Duluth Chief Scott Lyons says he understands that, but he hopes the legislature might let the strike force adjust its mission, once it gets going. And for starters, Lyons says, the strike force will perform a very valuable service just by taking a closer look at outstate gangs, and maybe replacing some of the speculation and guesswork with hard facts and figures.