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Are police gang databases accurate? What happens if they're not?

ProPublica Illinois, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that does investigative journalism, recently published an article about inaccuracies in Chicago's gang database. Police and law enforcement officials routinely cite the gang database when investigating and prosecuting crimes. The database is also used for immigration enforcement, criminal background checks and other purposes.

Unfortunately, ProPublica says the gang database is riddled with errors -- and getting your name removed is virtually impossible.

Last year, two men separately filed lawsuits against the Chicago Police Department after the database flagged them as gang members and they were detained and threatened with deportation. Both claimed they had been included in the database based merely on their race and their neighborhoods. Both said they were given no opportunity to challenge their inclusion.

The police admitted making a mistake in one case. The other is still pending.

According to ProPublica, the Chicago PD has long fought attempts to clarify how the database is maintained, how it is used, and what definition is used to classify someone as a gang member.

What we do know is that virtually everyone listed in the gang database is a person of color. Seventy percent are African-American and another 25 percent are Hispanic. We also know that it contains at least 163 people in their 70s and 80s -- and 15 people supposedly above the age of 118.

The data comes from arrest records, incident reports involving people who were stopped but not charged, reported crimes, and sources the police deem reliable. According to one police officer ProPublica interviewed, some people are identified as gang members based only on where they live. Furthermore, the database is expanding. In the past three years, the police have included thousands more people that were never arrested.

That officer ProPublica interviewed did defend the database. It gives law enforcement access to associations, connections and locations they wouldn't otherwise have. A department spokesperson told ProPublica that the department is working on a plan to vet who gets included in the database and to offer people a chance to challenge their designation as gang-affiliated. He also said that "ensuring the information is accurate and reliable is crucial."

But this database is neither accurate nor reliable. People are being arrested, detained, deported and prosecuted based on what could easily be false information.

The ProPublica story focuses on Chicago, but this could easily be a nationwide issue. Not only do many large police departments maintain gang databases like this one, but they also share the information with other police departments and federal authorities. That sharing is spreading misinformation from agency to agency -- with potentially devastating consequences for the innocent.

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