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Gang strike force opposes merger with drug force
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Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek recommends merging the Minnesota Gang Strike Force into the Minnesota Drug Task Forces. The plan would also create a metro gang strike force within the unnamed new agency. (MPR file photo)
Members of Minnesota's Gang Strike Force say they're not happy with Gov. Pawlenty's proposal to merge the gang unit with the Minnesota Drug Task Force. Pawlenty's supplemental budget proposal includes a $3 million initiative for an agency that will investigate both drug and gang activity. Pawlenty and other supporters say the merger would save money and consolidate crime fighting resources. But critics say they're concerned the agency will suffer.

St. Paul, Minn. — The governor's proposal would create a single agency that would fight illegal gang activity, violent crime and drug trafficking. It would merge the Minnesota Gang Strike Force with the Narcotics Task Force, a unit funded with federal money. Mike Campion with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension says the proposal would coordinate efforts to thwart criminal activity statewide.

"It's really kind of fragmented. I think the drug world is off on their own a little bit and the gang folks are doing what they're doing," Campion says. "There really isn't that structure -- to bring everybody together that really have common problems."

Campion says the new agency would improve communication among members of the narcotics task force and the gang strike force. But officials with the Minnesota Gang Strike Force say they're worried that their efforts to fight gang activity will suffer.

He's using a big club, and the big club is money. ... I have concerns that I think his tendency is to want to control, put power with him.
- Sen. Jane Ranum, on Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek

"Don't fix us. Fix what's broke," says Commander Ron Ryan, who is in charge of the Gang Strike Force.

Ryan says his group tracks 9,000 gang members and made over 800 arrests last year. Ryan has been lobbying lawmakers for additional funding after seeing his budget dramatically cut last session. At that time, the attorney general's office and the Department of Public Safety came up with funding to offset some of the cuts and keep the strike force operational.

Ryan and Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher say they support the merger if it's the only way to get additional money. Fletcher, who sits on the Gang Strike Force oversight council, says Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek told the council the merger is the only way the strike force would see additional funding.

"Threat is too strong of a word, but the clear statement and implication was that we weren't likely to get funding unless we were supportive of the commissioner having control of the gang strike force," Fletcher says.

That concerns several DFL senators, including Jane Ranum of Minneapolis. Ranum, who regularly butted heads with Stanek during Stanek's tenure in the Minnesota House, says she's worried the commissioner wants greater control over the gang strike force and other criminal justice matters.

"He's using a big club, and the big club is money," Ranum says. "I don't know if this is a good idea or a bad idea, but I can tell you I have concerns that I think his tendency is to want to control, put power with him."

A spokesman for Stanek referred calls to Mike Campion with the BCA, who said they're following the governor's directive to consolidate resources to improve crime fighting.

Campion says other law enforcement agencies, including the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the Minnesota County Sheriffs Association and the Minnesota County Attorney's Association all support the merger. He also says the gang strike force has been effective in the Twin Cities, Duluth, St. Cloud and Rochester, but hasn't had an impact in other parts of the state.

"I'm not sure it's fair to have no presence, or no resources to other parts of the state that have a serious gang problem," Campion says. "We can argue about this minutiae until we don't have any time left, but I don't understand how more funding and better coverage is a bad deal."

Campion says the bill that would merge the agencies doesn't give Stanek any additional control. The proposal hasn't been made public in bill form yet.

Sen. Ranum says this issue and other concerns about Stanek's role as commissioner will be brought up in the Senate Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee hearing, when it acts on Stanek's confirmation on Monday.

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