If you ask law enforcement, gang databases are a vital tool in keeping cities safe. It has been around since policing was established. It has helped curb crime. When violence occurs, law enforcement tries to get one step ahead by knowing who may retaliate and who may be targeted next. In order to do this, they have to understand the gangs size, scope, location, and members. This data sis what is stored in the databases.
When an individual is entered in the database, their name and other identifying information, known associates, known vehicles, places frequented, and criminal history are detailed. When a gang is entered in the database, its symbol, colors, turf location, alliances, and rivalries are detailed.
Tracking gangs is nothing new. When law enforcement took down the Mafia, their data was written on index cards and stored in file cabinets. As technology has improved, so has the data bases—which are now stored on computers and often times shared.
In the current era of fake news and government surveillance, people are rightfully demanding more transparency when it comes to gang databases. Why? Innocent people are being branded as gang members.
Most recently, New York Police Departments database, which tracks nearly 500 gangs and crews, has been called into question. There are nearly 17,500 individuals in the database. The vast majority are young men and almost exclusively filled with minorities, less than 1% are white. The database includes 17 thirteen-year-olds, 80 fourteen-year-olds and 204 fifteen-year-olds in the database.
To be entered, an individual must self-identify as a gang member to law enforcement or on social media; have been identified by at least two sources; OR demonstrate involvement through colors, signs, and symbols. The data base is reviewed, under this same criteria, every three years and on the individuals 23rd and 28th birthdays.
One of the main issues that New Yorker’s have is that there is zero transparency. Individuals are not informed when they are entered into the database. If you are simply curious whether you have been entered, your request will be left unanswered. New Yorker’s feel that unless the department is being threatened with a lawsuit or called to testify, there is no incentive for law enforcement to release that information.
Arizona has what is called the Gang and Immigration Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission (GIITEM). It is comprised of roughly 30 agencies statewide who work collectively to deter criminal gang activity among other things. They do this through enforcement of laws, investigations, arrests and prosecution, and dismantling gang organizations.
Prior to GIITEM being formed in late 1992, Arizona had little to no gang laws and agencies were addressing the problems individually. For that reason, gangs were fleeing from California and entering Arizona were there were no enhancements to charges or sentencings. In an effort to take a strong and coordinated stance against gang violence, GIITEM was formed.
Under Arizona §13-105, a Criminal Street Gang is defined as an “ongoing formal or informal association of persons in which members or associates individually or collectively engage in the commission, attempted commission, facilitation or solicitation of any felony act and that has at least one individual who is a criminal street gang member.” A Criminal Street Gang Member is defined as an individual whom at least two of the following seven criteria that indicate criminal street gang membership apply: self-proclamation, witness testimony or official statement, written or electronic correspondence, paraphernalia or photographs, tattoos, clothing or colors, or any other indicia of street gang membership. In trial, the prosecution will likely have to call a gang exert to qualify the defendant or crime to be gang related. The expert will be asked to explain that certain colors, tattoos, signs, or individuals are affiliated with what gangs who frequent certain locations.
Arizona’s gang database is law enforcement sensitive. Individuals are not directly informed of being entered into the database. Once you are entered into the database, there is only one way out—get “verified.” To get verified the individual, has to go to a Gang Intelligence Officer, renounce their rights, and give up names of current members. This process takes a year to complete where the individual will have to undergo psychological tests. The delay is to ensure that the individual is truly denouncing and not merely attempting to get to a previously denounced person. So the options are: be a snitch and risk your life or stay in.
There are four main arguments that circle around the discussion of gang databases:
1. Inclusion into the database is not accurately measured. An individual can be entered into the database, without knowledge, for having certain tattoos, wearing certain colors, living in certain areas of town, or associating with certain people. Once an individual is suspected of involvement, they are determined to be involved. Individuals who have changed their lifestyles for the better, by getting out of the gang, are often times tainted by their past because scrutiny can far outlast actual affiliation. This criteria for inclusion is dehumanizing and overly simplifying community issues.
2. It’s being used to change the demographics of cities. People of color are being ensnared by this entrenched policing philosophy. It is criminalizing the most vulnerable and marginalized people.
3. Gang policing is the epitome of government secrecy. Often these databases are kept out of the public reach, which creates a due process problem. Individuals who are entered into these databases are rarely made aware of it. If they do find out about it, there is often times no recourse to challenge it.
4. Consequences of being entered into a gang database can be detrimental to one’s life. Law enforcement stops involving members of the database are tense. Prosecutors overcharge individuals in gang-related cases, which adds pressures to take a plea. Prosecutors can use it to set a higher bail. Judges can use it as a sentencing enhancement. Immigration authorities can use it for deportation.
Some critics are calling to abolish gang databases altogether, however when there is bad data, the solution is not no data necessarily, but rather good data. Abolishing the databases completely would make it even more difficult for law enforcement to understand and respond to violence in communities.
To improve data there needs to be a more consistent rule for who is eligible to be entered. Once entered, the database needs to undergo regular checks. The stigma and belief of gang membership needs to be one of temporary status.
California is demonstrating how to improve data rather than simply abolish it. In 2013, a law passed requiring law enforcement to inform parents or guardians of minors before entering them into the database as a suspected gang member, associate, or affiliate and allow them to contest. Beginning is 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring law enforcement to provide the above notice to an adult before entering them into the system as well.
If gathered and used correctly, gang databases can be part of the solution for law enforcement to fight crime. However, as it stands, this process is part of the problem.