When the Metro Gang Strike Force suspended operations amid a financial scandal last May, the Minneapolis Police Department quickly filled the gap in enforcement by creating a new unit dedicated to curbing gang violence. That unit became the Gang Enforcement Team, and today it works with the city of Minneapolis and its communities to combat gang violence.
“The police administration made a decision that we could not afford to go without gang investigations and a focus on gang crime,” said Lt. Jeff Rugel, the team’s leader. He said he agreed with the department’s assumptions that a new strike force model would not surface soon enough to justify a gap in enforcement. “However that comes out, we can’t just sit on our hands and wait for that,” he said.
Rugel has been with MPD for more than 20 years and was involved in gang and narcotics investigations primarily from 1993 to 2000. He was appointed to the position by Minneapolis police Chief Tim Dolan.
Rugel began his work in July and over the first few weeks began building his team. He selected officers with a wide range of experience with investigations, federal cases and narcotics. The team also has members with only a few years under their belts. “I’ve got a couple guys with three years on the job with no experience other than they were good, hardworking street cops,” he said.
Rugel said the team is made up of all Minneapolis police officers and focuses on crimes that happen within the city. He said the team mostly aids officers in the field who request backup when dealing with possible gang activity. His team identifies gang members, debriefs suspects and attempts to determine a suspect’s potential gang affiliation.
The other side of the unit focuses on gathering intelligence on gang members and preventing retaliation. Rugel said it’s very difficult to prevent the first violent crime against another gang, but by gathering intelligence on gang members, the unit can intervene and prevent retaliatory violence.
Rugel said that because of the strong relationships with the departments of probation and corrections, his team is effective in preventing retaliation. Through these relationships, the team is able to closely keep tabs on gang members with prior criminal records.
“If you retaliate, we are going to come after you, because we know who you are and we know where you live,” he said.
Rugel said GET is fortunate that Minneapolis police have the resources to achieve the critical mass necessary to be effective on the street. He said a lot of smaller departments are only able to dedicate one or two officers, which makes the task force model necessary in a lot of cases.
Rugel said one of the biggest advantages his team has is being a single-agency unit. “Everything we do, every report we write goes into the Minneapolis police records management system,” he said.
According to Rugel, the Minneapolis records system has very strict policies regarding evidence, which does not allow the corruption that became the Metro Gang Strike Force’s downfall last year. Among other offenses, members of the Metro Gang Strike Force had wrongly taken property and money from suspects.
“By design, there’s no opportunity for some of those things to happen,” Rugel said.
This is not Rugel’s first endeavor into gang territory. He was a member of both the Minnesota Gang Strike Force in the late 1990s and the original Minneapolis Police Gang Unit in the mid 1990s.
Minneapolis police Inspector Mike Martin worked closely with Rugel in the Minneapolis Police Gang Unit. Martin said he and Rugel were sergeants at the time; Martin supervised patrols, Rugel intelligence and both handled investigations.
“Jeff already came to the unit with experience in doing major narcotics cases,” Martin said. “He also worked a lot of weapons cases in conjunction with the ATF.”
He said Rugel’s experience in these areas benefits him in running GET.
Rugel said the gangs he deals with now have changed since he worked in the gang unit with Martin.
“What we’ve seen in the last couple years is a different kind of gang with much less hierarchy, much less formal structure and less of a spread in ages,” Rugel said. “Just when you think you have a handle on who’s on which side and who’s fighting who, they switch up and they all change.”
According to Rugel, most gang members today are 16 to 18 years old.
Craig Vana, executive director for emergency management and safety and security for Minneapolis Public Schools, said the Youth Violence Prevention Task Force brings together many different elements of the community and the city to address the issue.
Vana said that in addition to Minneapolis police, immigrant communities are represented in the task force, along with the park, school and youth coordinating boards.
“We’re only going to address the problems in our community if we learn to work together,” he said.
Vana said the purpose of the task force in the city’s schools is not to arrest kids and throw them in jail; it is to change how they see their lives. “Everyone is committed to making the lives of our young people better,” he said.