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The Safe Streets Task Force

How the collaboration between FBI and local law enforcement works and what it means

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-06-04


During the last week of May, the FBI announced that it was collaborating with local law enforcement agencies to fight violent crime and organized gangs in the Fort Wayne area as part of a program called the Safe Streets Task Force (SSTF). Directly on the heels of this announcement came news of the task force’s first operation — 16 arrests in a citywide drug-trafficking network.

The SSTF is not a new concept; the FBI has been doing it since 1992, and in fact Fort Wayne is one of the last major metropolitan areas in Indiana to adopt the program. “We have an SSTF in Merrillville, Evansville, Lafayette, Indianapolis, and now Fort Wayne,” explains Special Agent Wendy Osborne of the FBI’s headquarters in Indianapolis. “We identified a problem in Fort Wayne working with (Fort Wayne Police) Chief Rusty York, (Allen County) Sheriff Ken Fries, and the Indiana State Police. We’ve all come to the table, and they have assigned full time officers from their respective agencies to be deputized as federal agents.”

“We combine the resources, both financial, technical, the number of officers on a task force,” adds Osborne. “It’s a force multiplier that really works for us.”

The deputized agents — three from the Allen County Sheriff’s Department; two from the state police, and one from the Fort Wayne Police Department —have the same powers as an FBI agent, and work directly with the FBI on cases. “Technically, they are assigned to the task force and that’s where they work full time,” says Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries. “I told the FBI from the start: ‘I’m in this to make a difference. If I don’t see some productivity come from this task force, I will pull them out and put them back doing county police work.’ With the understanding that sometimes these cases may take months. But the FBI runs it. If they have issues with any of the people there, we will pull them out and put someone else back in.”

And the FBI foots the entire bill for the program. “We pay for the officer’s over time, we get them a leased vehicle, office space, computer systems, everything,” says Osborne.

Though the existence of the SSTF in Fort Wayne became public knowledge the last week of May, Osborne adds that official memorandums of understanding were signed in April, and that the FBI has been working with local law enforcement informally long before that. In fact, many people interviewed suggested that what really got the project running in Fort Wayne was the string of suspected gang-related homicides that happened in the city a little over a year ago. “I think that’s what really woke up the FBI,” says Ken Fries. “That was about a year after I tried to get the Metro Division going again, which was the city and county police working together to target criminal activity.”

In order to get the federal grant to fund the Metro Division, there have to be at least two law enforcement agencies involved. “Initially, the city was all in favor of it, but as it came down to the wire, they said no,” Fries says. “They wouldn’t sign the memorandum of understanding, so we couldn’t get the grant. They were concerned that we were going to target just certain populations, and I said ‘no, I target crime, not just certain populations’.”

So, when an FBI agent who knew Fries was trying to restart the Metro Division approached him about the Safe Streets Task Force, Fries says he and other local law enforcement agencies were interested and began discussions.

Obviously, working with the FBI can take many of these investigations to a whole new level. “You wind up having the entire FBI available for crime investigation, including the federal district attorneys” says Fries. “(the SSTF) not only pulls in the FBI but also the State police are part of it, so you have resources from the state, from the city, from the federal government.” He adds that a city, county, or state agency acting alone might be able to look at some of the crimes and target some of the people that fall under the purview of the SSTF, but… “we’re never going to be able to get as far along in the case without all the resources available from the Feds.”

T. Neil Moore, who was Fort Wayne’s Chief of Police from 1988 through 1997 and is now with the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, goes into a little more detail about the kind of resources — technological and financial — local law enforcement has access to in arrangements like the SSTF. In an undercover drug operation, for example, Moore says a municipal police department in Indiana might have enough money in the drug budget to “flash” or show $10,000 (this is all theoretical). “With the federal resources, I may now be in a position where I could let the $10,000 go,” Moore says. “Why is that important? If you’re trying to track higher into a drug chain, or a chain that’s selling some sort of illegal item, if you can let the money actually flow into the organization itself, then that enhances the credibility of the officer operating undercover and allows that officer to be more well accepted in the criminal enterprise, which enhances the investigation.”

Also, some of the technological resources the FBI has at its disposal are also out of the budget range of many state and local law enforcement departments. Moore talks about working with a federal task force several years ago on a drug trafficking case. “In trying to develop more information for probable cause, we ended up using a special type of camera that had a special high-zoom capability on it that a local law enforcement agency could not afford to own,” Moore recalls. “It was simply a matter of the FBI saying ‘we have this camera we can use for this particular surveillance operation’.”

And finally, at the risk of sounding too obvious, being deputized as an FBI agent allows an officer to move under federal jurisdiction. “Now I can operate with almost federal credentials, so if we end up in an interstate situation, there’s a great likelihood that I’m still going to be able to affect an arrest,” says Moore.

But the establishment of a Safe Streets Task Force to combat gang violence in Fort Wayne raises several other questions — does Fort Wayne have a gang problem? And if so, how bad is it that the FBI would need to get involved?

The answers are a little more complicated than you might expect. As far as gang activity goes, historically Fort Wayne is no better — or worse — than what can be seen all over the country. According to T. Neil Moore, gang activity is cyclical, and changes over time. Like many communities across the country, Moore says Fort Wayne was hit with an “onslaught” of crack-cocaine in the late 80s and early ‘90s. “There’s money to be made (from selling drugs), and so that, for some gangs, becomes the catalyst to bring them together,” Moore explains. “So as law enforcement in Fort Wayne and Allen County at that time started to identify who the players were, then drug investigations and gang-based investigations would be made, the idea being that if we could establish probable cause, we’re going to lock these guys up.”

“The officers in Fort Wayne in the early and mid ‘90s were very successful in identifying the main players and getting them locked up,” Moore continues. “What’s interesting is that we hit a period in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s when crime seemed to be on this huge, one decade decline, and one of the theories is we had a certain number of very key people locked up.”

But Moore says that in Fort Wayne and Allen County, someone convicted of dealing (for example) cocaine might get 20 years, but under the “Good Time” provision in Indiana law, they could be out in 10. So someone locked up at 20-years-old is 30 when they get out. “They’re still young, they’ve got to catch up for lost time, and so what do you do? They’re going to do what they know best,” Moore finishes. “The wave comes back up as these former drug dealers come out of prison. Now I’m a retired police officer, all of a sudden I start seeing names coming back into the news media that I recognized as individuals we locked up 10 years earlier. I certainly think that that is a contributory factor to any increase Fort Wayne is experiencing right now in terms of drug activity or gang activity or both.”

But the gang activity local law enforcement is seeing now is far, far different than what happened in the late 80s and early 90s, according to Bob Rinearson, an authority on Fort Wayne street gangs who worked with Moore on a number of task forces during Moore’s stint with the Fort Wayne Police Department. Rinearson was with the Juvenile Division of the Indiana Department of Corrections for 17 years, serving as Community Services Coordinator and Gang Information Coordinator. He worked exclusively with young males from across Indiana between the ages of 12 and 18.

“You don’t quite see the same ties now that you saw in the 90s,” Rinearson explains. “Then we were seeing an increase in crack cocaine distribution that was hitting Fort Wayne and all across America. Kids were being utilized. The gangs kind of gave an instant organized operation that the drug distributors could hook into. These days, you don’t see the same number of kids — young people, even as young as 12 — you just don’t see it right now in drug distribution.”

These days, Rinearson says that a lot of street gang violence among younger people is all about territory and respect. “Right now, it’s almost like everybody is defending their turf, everybody is trying to get recognition. Someone gets disrespected, and everybody is stumbling all over each other to be at their buddies back because of their gang affiliation. It’s an identity thing. But as far as distributing, it’s not the same. Then, it was just horrible.”

The drugs are still out there, of course, but coinciding with Moore’s theory, Rinearson points out how many of the people caught in the SSTF bust during the last week of May were “older” than your average street gang member (Rinearson says he knew a couple of the people who were arrested from when they were young). “You have to separate street gangs and drug gangs,” says Rinearson. “Drug gangs are a lot tighter. They’re very close-mouthed. They certainly don’t get into some of those identifying features, whether it’s graffiti or whatever. When you talk about street gangs, you’re talking about younger people who are getting together to back one another up.” But streets gangs, even if they’re not involved in drug distribution, represent their own kind of danger. “(the people involved) throw off education, and they buy into ‘thug life’,” Rinearson adds. “They absolutely believe that as long as they have each other they can survive and make do. They have little focus on the future.”

The Safe Streets Task Force operation in Fort Wayne is open-ended, and Sheriff Fries, for one, doesn’t see it wrapping up any time soon. “Our guys were sent there in April, and to have the first case close this quickly really impressed me,” he says, referring to the May 28 arrests. “I don’t expect the next one to be that quick. It may be, but I don’t anticipate this task force ending any time soon. Maybe when our jails are emptied and there are no more bad guys. I think it’s just important that we’re all working together to get something accomplished.”

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