On a late-afternoon last February, Victor Gaten was driving down East Lake street, near Minneapolis’ Midtown Global market, smoking marijuana and playfully kissing his girlfriend’s hand when he saw red-and-blue lights flashing from an unmarked Crown Victoria in his rearview mirror. Gaten flipped on his signal and turned into the parking lot of Family Dollar off 10th Avenue South. As he did, a blue Chevy SUV sped around the slick lot and toward his Camaro.
Why is he cutting between me and the police? Gaten wondered.
The Chevy collided with his car, and Gaten jumped out and pointed at the SUV for the officers behind him to see. The next thing he knew he was lying on the asphalt, staring up at a blur of limbs and firearms. A Minneapolis police officer, who had been driving the SUV undercover, pinned Gaten down with his 290-pound frame and punched him repeatedly in the face, according to court testimony. Another officer split Gaten’s lip open with the sight on the end of his gun.
“I’m screaming at him, asking him, ‘Why are you hittin’ me with your gun’?” Gaten told MinnPost in an interview.
An ambulance arrived, which Gaten thought was for him, but was actually for one of the officers, who had hurt his back during the struggle.
Two of the cops brought Gaten to Hennepin County Medical Center, Gaten later testified, where they asked hospital security to strip him and help search him for drugs — a claim the officer would later dispute in court.
Gaten testified he was restrained face-down, his ankles and wrists tied with leather straps. His pants were pulled down to his lower thighs and he felt the pin prick of a needle. He woke up some time later to someone stitching up his mangled lip.
“Please,” the woman cautioned, “don’t move.”
The officers did find something in the search of Gaten that day: a bag of cocaine, hidden in his rectum. On Feb. 11, the Hennepin County Attorney’s office charged him with third-degree possession of narcotics, a felony.
But the charges didn’t stick. In a pretrial hearing in June, Judge Toddrick Barnette threw out the evidence. Not because Gaten was innocent — the case never made it that far — but because the warrantless search had been unconstitutional, he ruled. The officers didn’t establish cause to arrest Gaten, Barnette said, and they didn’t have the right to search his body.
“This is one of the reasons why some citizens in Minneapolis have problems with Minneapolis police,” Barnette opined about the bust.
The subjects of the judge’s reprimand that day all belonged to the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct Community Response Team — or CRT (pronounced cert) — a plainclothes unit that polices quality-of-life issues in the city’s largest precinct, a territory that covers everything in Minneapolis south of I-94 and east of I-35W.
“Everyone knows these cops do it, and everyone knows there’s a certain few who are bad apples,” says a public defender. “But it seems like no one is willing to shut them down. ”
CRT officers work undercover stings to bust drug dealers and prostitutes, and many in the unit have racked up major departmental accolades in their time on the force. In 2011, two of the men who arrested Gaten in February — Sean McTaggart and Bryce Robinson — received Distinguished Service awards. Another CRT officer, Steven Lecy, won the Department Award of Merit last year, and starred in an episode of “Cops” in 2013.
Yet the Gaten case was neither the first nor last time the conduct of the Third Precinct’s CRT has gotten in the way of a successful prosecution. A MinnPost review of court documents, police reports and medical records reveals a pattern of behavior by several of the unit’s officers that has undermined numerous criminal cases. Since the summer of 2014 alone, judges have thrown out multiple cases involving CRT officers for having engaged in unwarranted sexual contact during prostitution busts; performing an improper strip search; and obtaining a warrant based on false information. Unit officers have also been criticized in open court for using unnecessary force during arrests.
The consequences of these actions go beyond debates about constitutional issues or the proper use of force. To date, behavior by CRT officers has led to several criminal suspects going free on technical grounds. It’s also cost the city tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-court payouts.
Last month, the city settled the third federal lawsuit accusing one CRT officer, Lecy, of excessive force in the past year. McTaggart, who Gaten alleges hit him several times with his gun during the February bust, is currently facing a federal civil suit alleging he punched a 61-year-old man in the stomach.
“It's so frustrating that everyone knows these cops do it, and everyone knows there’s a certain few who are bad apples, but it seems like no one is willing to shut them down,” says Abigail Cerra, a public defender for Hennepin County who says many of her cases involve questionable searches from the Third Precinct CRT “cowboys.”
“I’m sure that they believe in public safety and following the law and keeping people safe,” she says. “But these particular officers think that the ends justify the means.”
In late August, the unit came under public criticism after news broke that three of its officers, one of whom was Lecy, allowed suspects to touch their genitals during massage parlor prostitution stings. Judges dismissed two of the cases on the grounds of “outrageous government conduct,” ruling the officers went beyond what was necessary to make an arrest, and a prosecutor dropped the third.
Police Chief Janeé Harteau says the department is in the process of conducting a far-reaching investigation of the massage parlor cases, examining the conduct of the officers during the stings; the judges’ rulings; and whether the department should continue devoting resources to these types of undercover operations. “I want to assure people that if there’s wrongdoing in anything that an officer does, it gets addressed and handled,” she says. “But also, when officers do the right thing, I will support them. That’s my job.”
The arresting officers had a very different story of what happened to Victor Gaten that February afternoon in South Minneapolis.
In a June hearing, three officers — Chris Reiter, McTaggart and Robinson — testified that they were on patrol around East Lake Street in Minneapolis, driving in an unmarked car, when they saw a passenger in a Camaro making a hand-to-hand exchange with a known drug user. The officers turned on the sirens to pull the car over, but Gaten didn’t stop right away. They saw the car “rocking back and forth,” and one officer said he witnessed Gaten putting his hands down in his pants.
When the car finally pulled over into the Family Dollar parking lot, the officers said, it accelerated into the undercover SUV — not the other way around. They took Gaten to the ground because they believed he intended to flee, and officer Reiter acknowledged punching him when he resisted the arrest. Officer McTaggart denied ever purposely hitting Gaten with his weapon; the sight on his gun accidentally caught Gaten’s lip during the struggle, he testified.
McTaggart also denied that any strip search took place — it was the staff at HCMC who made the call to disrobe and restrain Gaten in order to suture his lip. That’s when McTaggart saw a bag of white powder sticking out of Gaten’s buttocks.
But other witnesses contradicted several pieces of the officers’ testimony. Ingrid Wong, the doctor working at HCMC that night, said she had no memory or record of ever requesting security to restrain or disrobe Gaten.
“And for the suture on the lip, would it be typical for you to ask a patient be disrobed?” asked Jordan Deckenbech, Gaten’s attorney.
“Typically not,” replied Wong.
A security supervisor from the nearby Midtown Exchange building told the court he saw the arrest play out on security feed. His story also didn’t line up with the cops’ version.
Police officers have a difficult job, and it’s sometimes hard to make the right call in the moment, says Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. But the Gaten case was an example of a case where cops “don’t follow the rules and the prosecution goes down.”
He testified seeing the unmarked police SUV crash into Gaten’s Camaro. His staff offered to give the video to police that day, he told the court, but the officers never came to retrieve it, and after two weeks security erased the footage, as was their normal protocol.
Gaten also took the stand at the June proceeding. He told the judge he had no idea why the officers were beating him that day. He said one officer choked him and another kicked him in the face and head, even after he was in cuffs. Gaten also scoffed at the accusation that he tried to flee, bragging that he drove a souped-up Camaro, and if he wanted to outrun a “slow-ass police car,” he would have done so.
Gaten told the court he never resisted arrest; he only tried to protect his face when the officers began beating him, and he feared for his life when McTaggart took him to HCMC after the altercation. When they arrived at the hospital, McTaggart told security to strap him down and strip search him. McTaggart even tried to pull Gaten’s pants off, according to Gaten’s testimony. After being sedated and awaking to being stitched up, he passed out again and woke up in jail, with no idea where he was or how he got there.
“Wrong is wrong,” Gaten told the judge. “I admit my wrongdoings. My wrongdoing was possession. … I don’t got to lie. But the way they went about getting it was just inhumane.”
Judge Barnette admonished Gaten for the drugs, but said he believed his story. He did not feel the same about Officer McTaggart’s testimony. “Let me put it this way,” Barnette said of the police officer, “I don’t find him credible.”
The judge ruled the officers didn’t have sufficient basis to arrest Gaten, citing the fact that they never even attempted to question him about the drugs. They also didn't have cause for the invasive search, Barnette ruled, meaning the evidence would have to be thrown out. “I think what happened, as a side note, to Mr. Gaten and the amount of force that was used on him, is beyond belief,” the judge said.
In an recent interview, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office prosecuted Gaten, lamented that the case was “not the Third Precinct’s finest hour.” Police officers have a difficult job, and it’s sometimes hard to make the right call in the moment, says Freeman. But this was an example of a case where cops “don’t follow the rules and the prosecution goes down.”
“The price is paid not only by the prosecutors, but society, because this particular [suspect] got away with one,” he said. “So I think it’s very unfortunate for all of us.”
The Gaten case is not the only one in which a bad search by a Third Precinct CRT officer compromised a prosecution, however.
In the winter of 2012, Officer Steven Lecy investigated a suspected drug dealer who police believed was selling crack out of his south Minneapolis home. Lecy organized a controlled purchase: sending in a criminal informant, who came back with a baggie of what tested positive for crack. To confirm the suspect lived there, Lecy also searched the trash, finding several small bags that looked like the one his informant had bought.
Around 7:30 p.m., on Dec. 10, Lecy busted into the house with a SWAT team. Along with the suspect, Lecy found 33-year-old Enrique Lightfoot sitting at a table next to the door. In front of Lightfoot was a ceramic plate and a razor blade dusted with white powder, according to police reports. Lecy pulled Lightfoot to his feet and frisked him, feeling two lumps in his pocket, which turned out to be 6.5 grams of crack, according to the report.
Lightfoot was charged with second-degree possession.
A judge later tossed out the evidence.
Before the search, Lecy had applied for a warrant that would allow the officers to enter the house at night without announcing themselves first, known as a no-knock warrant. Part of the reason for the measure was the possible presence of a man named Joseph Smith, who also lived at the house, according to Lecy’s warrant affidavit. Lecy wrote that Smith posed a risk to officer safety, as he had a lengthy history of violent crimes, “including recently being arrested for a stabbing.”
Harteau wasn’t aware if officers on the Third Precinct CRT have been investigated in the past for other misconduct allegations. “That’s not an answer I have today,” she says, “but is certainly a question that I have.”
The problem was that much of this information wasn’t true. Smith hadn’t been arrested for a stabbing — he’d recently been the victim of stabbing. He did have assaults on his record, but the most recent was 13 years prior.
What’s more: No evidence pointed to Smith living in the house.
At a Hennepin County hearing in July, Judge Luis Bartolomei ruled the no-knock warrant wasn’t supported by reasonable suspicion, meaning the officers didn’t have cause to enter the house that night unannounced. Because of the technicality, all of the evidence gathered from the raid had to be tossed out. The Hennepin County prosecutor dropped the case.
This summer, Lecy found himself in Hennepin County courtroom explaining his behavior in a more recent case — one that would cause the MPD, with considerable embarrassment, to shut down massage parlor prostitution stings.
Late last year, Minneapolis police received complaints about a suspicious massage business operating out of a storefront in the Longfellow neighborhood. Lecy posed as a customer and requested a body-to-body massage, meaning the masseuse would rub her nude body on Lecy’s. He arrived, made the deal, put the money on the table and undressed. The woman stripped down to her underwear. During the more-than-20-minute massage, the suspect rubbed her breasts on Lecy and began touching his genitals. That’s when he called in McTaggart and two other officers who had been waiting outside, listening through a recording device hidden inside a cast on Lecy’s left hand.
The suspect was charged with four counts related to prostitution. Yet when the matter came before Hennepin County Judge William Fisher, he dismissed the case, ruling that Lecy had cause for arrest long before he called in his team, and that he had allowed unnecessary sexual contact to take place. Fisher ruled Lecy’s police work “constituted outrageous government conduct that went beyond what was justified to collect evidence sufficient to arrest the defendant.”
When questioned in court, Lecy argued he was only doing his job that day. He compared his undercover work to acting — and he had to play the part convincingly. He allowed the massage to go on for so long for his own safety, he told the court. “I’m naked with oil all over me from getting a massage,” he said. “You don’t identify yourself or stop the situation because it’s literally unsafe to do so, because you have no idea what weapons are in the room. Sometimes, who else is outside the door? So until those officers come and make entry into that room, we need to keep, unfortunately, playing this act out.”
At the hearing, public defender Briana Perry also questioned Lecy on whether it was a regular practice for sexual contact to take place during a prostitution sting. He responded that it was: In about 20 undercover operations, the suspects touched his genitals “maybe ten times,” he said. In one of those cases, which occurred in March, Lecy allowed two suspects to massage the crack of his buttocks and down to his groin and testicles for 40 minutes, according to Lecy’s report. In that instance, the charges stuck; the case is set for trial this month.
Other officers in the unit have also engaged in sexual contact with suspects in the course of conducting prostitution stings. During one sting conducted last summer, McTaggart acknowledged in a police report, a suspect took off her shirt and bra and “began to massage my penis and then poured massage oil on it.“ Perry, who was also this suspect’s public defender, filed a motion requesting a judge dismiss the case based on the officer’s conduct, but prosecutors dropped the charges before the judge ruled.
Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, who has worked these prostitution stings in the past, vehemently defends the officers’ behavior, saying they did exactly what they should have done to make a good bust. “They were trained by the city attorney's office, who are experts in the law, to allow them to touch the genitals,” he says. “That is what the officers were trained to do. This has been a practice for many years.”
Kroll says he can see where the judge was coming from on his dismissal of the Lecy case, but criticized City Attorney Susan Segal for not quickly appealing the decision, a move he attributes to a liberal political agenda. He says the prosecutor did a poor job of proving in court why officers often need to wait for sexual contact in order to gather enough evidence for charges that rate above misdemeanor.
“Do I think this falls on the police officer? Not a bit,” says Kroll. “Do I think it falls on the City Attorneys office? Absolutely.”
Segal confirmed her office has decided not to appeal the decision, but couldn’t talk specifics as to why. She says her office doesn’t train police officers on how to conduct the operations. “The police do the training,” says Segal. “What we would do is advise on what the statutes require.”
In an interview, Harteau wouldn’t speak to specifics about the cases given the ongoing departmental investigation, but says the crime of prostitution has been a perennial concern for residents and business owners in the Third Precinct, which is why the CRT focused efforts on these busts.
She views it as a complicated issue beyond just the cases thrown out in August. The perception on prioritizing the crime of prostitution has changed in recent years among taxpayers, she says, and many now view prostitutes as victims rather than criminals. She believes the investigation will shed some light on the level of resources the department should spend on prostitution. So far, there has been no determination by the MPD on whether the officers did anything wrong during the stings.
“We’re still at the infancy stages of having conversations,” she says. “These cases are very complex. There’s more than one case, as you know. We probably share some of the similar questions.”
Harteau emphasized she doesn’t have the ability to make snap determinations on officer conduct allegations, and lamented that some are too quick to assign guilt. “People decide innocence and guilt before we have an opportunity to look at it,” she says. “What I want to assure people is we will always conduct thorough investigations, but I have to allow due process to take its course.”
Harteau wasn’t aware if officers on the Third Precinct CRT have been investigated in the past for other misconduct allegations. “That’s not an answer I have today,” she says, “but is certainly a question that I have.”
In an attempt to get comment for this story, MinnPost provided MPD with the details of cases described in the article. In response, the department made Harteau available for a short interview. MinnPost also requested internal affairs records for several of the officers involved in the cases reviewed as part of our reporting, but the city attorney’s office declined to make them available, citing that the unit works undercover and its officers are exempt from certain data laws. The three officers who went undercover in the prostitution cases thrown out in August recently filed a lawsuit against the city, county and state for failing to protect their identities.
But the public records that are available show that the Third Precinct CRT employs several officers with histories of misconduct allegations.
In 2013, a patrol officer in Cottage Grove pulled over CRT officer Sean McTaggart — who was involved in both the Gaten arrest and the dismissed prostitution case — on suspicion of driving while impaired. McTaggart initially refused to take a Breathalyzer, so the officer arrested him. McTaggart later blew a .17, more than twice the legal limit. As part of his sentence, he had to use an interlock ignition Breathalyzer for 90 days in order to drive. Minneapolis police wouldn’t comment on whether such a device was installed in his squad car, classifying this as “private data.”
A month after McTaggart’s DWI, David Zehringer, 61, came outside of his South Minneapolis home to find McTaggart and another officer standing on his property next to a broken fence. The officers were responding to a 911 call in the area (not involving Zehringer). Zehringer asked who was going to pay for the fence, and McTaggart asked for his ID.
According to the civil complaint later filed by Zehringer, as Zehringer walked back up his stairs, McTaggart “grabbed [him] by his hair, pulled Mr. Zehringer forward, kneed him in the chest, punched Mr. Zehringer in the face with a closed fist, and yelled out, ‘Fourth Degree Assault!’”
Zehringer was charged with obstruction of justice and two counts of disorderly conduct. He pleaded guilty to being loud and boisterous, and the rest of the charges were dropped. The civil case against McTaggart is still pending.
Lecy has also been named in several civil cases. Last month, the city agreed to pay out $25,000 in an out-of-court settlement — which is not the same as an admission of guilt — for a suit alleging Lecy "repeatedly and violently” punched a man named Louis Tate in the face during a narcotics pat down. The city paid another $39,000 earlier this year in a separate suit alleging Lecy and other officers beat up a man named Michael Burnett on New Year’s 2010. In that case, Lecy was accused of punching Burnett in the face without provocation, and then shooting him with a TASER “four to six times.” The city settled a third case last October in which Lecy was accused of getting into an altercation with a Little Earth resident in 2013, during a search for a suspect armed with a knife. During the argument, Lecy threw the man, Michael Ofor, to the ground by his hair while making derogatory comments about Native Americans, according to the suit, which settled for $9,500.
Before his recent retirement, the Third Precinct CRT sergeant was Jeff Jindra, who has also been named in numerous complaints over the course of his career. In 2007, the city agree to pay out $110,000 to murder suspect Philander Jenkins after he filed an excessive force suit against Jindra. According to the suit, during an arrest, Jindra cuffed Jenkins and then kicked him in the head and face hard enough that doctors had to use metal plates to put him back together.
Jindra later became a supervisor for the Metro Gang Strike Force, which the Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner shut down in 2010 amid reports of widespread corruption. That same year, the agencies behind the task force settled a $3 million lawsuit that alleged everything from improper seizure of money and property to an accusation that one of the officers kicked a toddler in the head during a raid.
Several more criminal cases containing allegations of inappropriate searches conducted by Third Precinct CRT officers are currently moving through the Hennepin County courts.
In one case, set for trial this month, a Minneapolis man says the CRT officers conducted an improper cavity search on him — which turned up 10 grams of heroin — in November 2013, during which Jindra grabbed him by the throat. In another case, scheduled for trial in January, a woman says the officers violated her rights by searching her vagina at the police precinct.
“Unfortunately, our office sees many of these cases,” says Mary Moriarty, chief public defender in Hennepin County. “It’s shocking that police officers are assaulting people in the community by ripping off their clothes and searching their body cavities for drugs without a warrant.”
Another case involves a 26-year-old named Guntallwon Brown, who Third Precinct CRT officers busted in August for possession of crack cocaine as part of an undercover narcotics buy in north Minneapolis.
According to police reports, the officers saw Brown hiding the drugs near his rectum. They brought him to North Memorial Hospital for a cavity search, but the doctor declined to perform the procedure, according to Brown’s medical records. In the warrant, the officers stated they needed to recover the drugs because the bag “might break open and cause serious health effects.”
On the contrary, the physician noted in his report, Brown didn’t show any symptoms of medical issues, but the procedure itself could rip the bag and put him at risk. The doctor said he would comply with a court order specifically requiring a cavity search, but he didn’t believe this warrant called for it. The hospital’s attorney concurred.
So the officers went elsewhere. They had Brown discharged and brought him to HCMC. They got a new warrant — this one saying they needed to get the drugs out before Brown’s body destroyed them. The doctor at HCMC sedated Brown and performed the operation, according to medical records.
When Brown came to, he was lying in a hospital bed, bleeding from the rectum and naked from the waist down, he told MinnPost. Five officers, including two women, stood over him in a circle.
Brown’s attorneys say the warrant was illegal, and that the search violated their client’s constitutional rights, given the officers could have simply waited for Brown to pass the evidence. As a result of the search, Brown says he still suffers from problems with bleeding. He’s been referred to counseling for adjustment disorder, anxiety and depression, according to his medical records. Brown has hired a civil attorney, Oliver Nelson, who says he will file a lawsuit in coming months.
Unlike in the Gaten case, though, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman says the officers handled the Brown matter by the book. He says they gave Brown alternatives to the operation, including letting Brown remove the drugs himself and offering him a laxative. “He was totally uncooperative, so they went and got a search warrant, which is proper,” says Freeman. “He has no constitutional rights to hide drugs in his butt.”
Discussions about the legality of the arrests tends to obscure an even larger point, argue defense attorneys involved in many of the cases reviewed by MinnPost: that the CRT’s behavior doesn’t just affect the criminal justice system’s ability to sort out who’s innocent – it compromises the ability to properly punish the guilty.
As Moriarty asks: “Is this an appropriate use of law enforcement resources?”