There are 757 Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG) funded multi-jurisdictional taskforces (MJTFs) throughout the country, according to a 2009 National Institute of Justice report. These taskforces are often on the front lines of the fight against drug trafficking, distribution and gang violence. However, the diversity of taskforces has often made determining success and efficiency difficult. In addition, the lack of common operating procedures, data gathering techniques and administrative protocols make meaningful evaluation and comparisons problematic. Minnesota has faced this challenge by leveraging state and federal resources to enhance local taskforce oversight, standardize taskforce operations, and improve the quality and outcomes of case work. These reforms have not only helped taskforces work more collaboratively but have resulted in an increase in arrests for distribution, a 93 percent felony arrest rate and a steady decrease in the number of arrests for simple possession.
Minnesota has 23 active multi-jurisdictional gang and narcotics taskforces covering 65 of the state’s 87 counties. These taskforces are staffed by over 200 investigators from over 120 state and local agencies. Funding for these taskforces in 2010 was almost $5 million, the majority (85 percent) of which comes from dedicated state funds that are administered by the Department of Public Safety (DPS), Office of Justice Programs (OJP). These funds are augmented by matching contributions, most often in-kind (staff salary), and funds from the state’s allocation of Byrne JAG dollars. This mix of state, local and federal dollars has been used to increase accountability and guide the taskforces towards the adoption and implementation of common best practices in operational and administrative procedures and protocols.
State and Local Oversight
As dictated by state statute, each of the 23 MJTFs has its own governing board. These oversight boards help steer the work of the taskforces and are responsible for making sure operations and procedures are consistent with stated goals and those of the state level coordinating council. The boards are composed of a minimum of six members, including the heads of participating agencies, a dedicated prosecutor and representatives from local communities. The governing boards meet at least once per quarter, where they review and monitor case processing, current investigations, taskforce budgets, evidence and property seizers, asset forfeitures and assess the need for training.
In addition to the individual taskforce governing boards, Minnesota also has a statewide Violent Crimes Coordinating Council (VCCC) which acts as the oversight and planning body for all 23 taskforces. By statute this 19 member council is comprised of local, state and federal partners including the Minnesota U.S. Attorney, the head of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Office of Special Investigation, the state Attorney General, four chiefs of police, four county sheriffs, two county attorneys, one tribal peace officer and four citizen members. Along with oversight the council is also responsible for:
Using the taskforce threat assessments to create a state strategic plan
Identifying investigative priorities
Overseeing the creation and updating of grant eligibility criteria
Overseeing the creation and updating of the taskforce investigation and procedural manual
Making recommendations to the head of the DPS regarding MJTF grant funding
Fostering information sharing initiatives
Identifying and recommending a candidate for the position of statewide taskforce coordinator
Statewide Taskforce Coordinator
Integral to the success of this oversight is the Statewide Taskforce Coordinator. The statewide coordinator reports to both the head of DPS and the VCCC and is responsible for monitoring and auditing each of the state’s taskforces. These audits involve OJP financial and programmatic staff, taskforce leadership and members of the governing boards. In-person reviews were established to follow up on quarterly reporting, address progress on defined goals, examine issues identified in governing board minutes, buy-fund policies, reexamine evidence collection and forfeiture protocols and address any issues or trends that have been identified in previous reviews. Once completed and scored these taskforce audits are used by the DPS Commissioner to certify compliance and eligibility for future funding.
In addition to conducting the audits, the taskforce coordinator holds annual meetings of taskforce commanders and the VCCC to discuss the priority areas for investigation, process or procedural improvements and to address any issues brought up by taskforce commanders. Both comprehensive audits and leadership forums are examples of the formal feedback loops that have been used to improve data collection and taskforce collaboration as well as increase the number of felony arrests/convictions.
As the liaison between the VCCC, the head of the DPS and individual task forces; one of the coordinator’s major responsibilities has been helping individual MJTFs come into compliance with regulatory and programmatic requirements. This has helped guide Minnesota’s taskforces towards the adoption of standard procedures and protocols which represent the best practices for taskforce operations. In Minnesota these administrative, procedural and investigative best practices are contained in theMultijurisdictional Taskforce Operating Procedures and Guidelines Manual. This 32-page manual provides taskforce officers and leadership with guidance on everything from working with confidential informants to proper budgeting and grant funding protocols. This operations manual is the culmination of work done by experienced law enforcement, narcotics commanders, the VCCC and members of DPS. Updated every few years the document was originally adopted in 2006 with a third revision planned for the coming year.
According to Jeri Boisvert, executive director of the MN Office of Justice Programs, the credit for these improvements belongs to Bob Bushman who has served as taskforce coordinator since its inception in 2006. “Mr. Bushman has been crucial to the standardizing and professionalizing of taskforce operations across the state of Minnesota. His work on our systems of accountability, developed in conjunction with our law enforcement grants manager, has allowed us to develop quality assessment data for local, state and federal funders to assure them public dollars are well spent,” Boisvert said.
The integration of standard investigative and administrative protocols has allowed OJP’s staff to adopt meaningful performance metrics and hold underperforming taskforces accountable. In addition the creation and adoption of common protocols has allowed the taskforces to better integrate and coordinate on investigations that cross MJTF boundaries. Due to this work inter-taskforce collaborations increased almost 500 percent from 2004-2010.
Through a combination of experience and flexible state funds, Bushman and the VCCC have created a baseline standard for taskforce operations within the state. This best practice document systematizes operations while also promoting taskforce best practices like required co-location, detailed joint power agreements, dedicated prosecutors and hiring and performance review by internal taskforce leadership. Although the adoption of standardized protocols across taskforces met initial resistance, it has improved case preparation, the quality of prosecutions and allowed for more seamless partnerships due to common investigative and operational practices. In addition there has been a shift away from basing taskforce productivity solely on arrest data.
This shift has focused on replacing the quantity of arrests or operations with the quality of arrests and operations. Although this has meant that many of the taskforces are taking on fewer numbers of cases the percent of felony arrests has risen from 86 percent in 2004 to 93 percent in 2010. Similarly with the narcotics taskforces there has been a shift in arrest type, in 2004 only 29 percent of arrests were for distribution, by 2010 this had risen to 37 percent. Concurrently there has also been a steady decline in the number of arrests for simple possession. While this shift toward quality over quantity is reinforced by multiple layers of command and control protocols, the taskforces have maintained their ability to respond to the drug trends in their communities. For example, there has been a dramatic increase in prescription drug arrests, which rose by 104 percent from 2004-2010.
“The adoption of the Guidelines Manual by the task forces has had a number of positive effects. It ensures that every task force has policies to guide their operations, and, when taskforces work together, they are working with the same set of rules. It also makes it easier to monitor and evaluate taskforce operations when they are all using the same administrative and enforcement procedures,” Bushman said.
Although Minnesota has been funding taskforces since the late 1980s the meaningful changes around oversight and standardization have their origins in 2005 legislation. This legislation created the first unified state level oversight body and began many of the changes that were eventually solidified in separate 2010 taskforce related legislation. During these last five years the DPS and the state legislature have built the oversight structures and accountability mechanisms that have allowed for the continued expenditure of state and federal dollars. These dollars have been used to incentivize the types of casework and enforcement that have allowed for the taskforce model to spread throughout the state and continue developing best practices.
To read more about Minnesota's taskforces, click here. To read more about the work of Minnesota Violent Crime Coordinating Council click here.