Around the country, there have been calls to significantly reform or even end the practice of keeping police gang databases, along with other gang policing practices. Last year, the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica found glaring errors in the Chicago Police Department’s gang database, including people who were not gang members, people who were deemed members of multiple, rival gangs, and people who were elderly or even dead.
More troubling is the fact that people who are included in gang databases have no way to prove they’re not gang members — and that has serious consequences. Inclusion in a gang database has been considered enough to prove gang affiliation in bail hearings, sentencing, deportation hearings and other legal proceedings. This is true even though the gang databases merely represent allegations.
People, including minors, are routinely entered into gang databases based on little actual evidence. They are not told they have been included and there is no process for getting your name pulled off the list.
Not only are alleged gang affiliations taken into account when a person is being investigated, but they also result directly in arrests and charges. Law enforcement makes press by performing “gang sweeps,” where they arrest people en masse.
Kraig Lewis, for example, was living in Connecticut and finishing his MBA when Bronx police arrested him, among 119 other people, in 2016. At his arraignment, the judge told him he could face the death penalty for violent crimes in furtherance of racketeering. He was held before trial for 22 months — away from his child. Ultimately, he felt he had no choice but to plead guilty and was released on time served.
Harsh gang policing drives mass incarceration
The New York Police Department’s gang database contains more than 18,000 people deemed active gang members. Almost 99% of those listed are people of color. Over 400 are minors.
The Chicago Police Department’s database is much larger, containing approximately 128,000 adults and at least 33,000 people 17 and under. A separate database operated by Cook County includes 25,000 names. These two databases were the subject of ProPublica’s report on massive errors.
Across the country, there have been challenges to the constitutionality of gang databases and warnings against the harsh policing practices surrounding allegations of gang activity.
Practices like using gang databases, gang injunctions, enhanced sentencing and charging broad conspiracies only work to increase mass incarceration. They also assume that harsh tactics are necessary to deter what is generally juvenile crime.
Law enforcement should not use closed, secret databases against people, even when fighting gang crime. Allegations of gang membership can have such a serious impact on the individual that they simply must be fully substantiated.