A Routine Police Stop Landed Him on California's Gang Database. Is It Racial Profiling?

By Anita Chabria, LA Times

Brian Allen was driving home from work in July 2017 when he spotted someone from his days at Crenshaw High School. He stopped, they talked and he agreed to give the friend — an aspiring rapper with a criminal record — a ride.

A passing LAPD cruiser did a U-turn and pulled over Allen’s Nissan. Officers questioned both men and let them go.

But more than a year later, police notified Allen that he’d been added to CalGang, a controversial database of thousands of gang members and those in their orbits. Police alleged that he associates with gangs because, Allen suspects, he has been seen in gang areas — the South L.A. neighborhood where he lives — and with an alleged gang member — the old friend.

Police told Brian Allen he was added to CalGang because he had been seen in gang areas and with an alleged gang member. (Courtesy of Brian Allen)

Police told Brian Allen he was added to CalGang because he had been seen in gang areas and with an alleged gang member. (Courtesy of Brian Allen)

“I was stunned,” the 31-year-old dance instructor said. “You automatically get cast as [a gang associate] often just because of how you look and where you are.”

This month, the California Department of Justice is expected to release newly proposed standards for how law enforcement can use CalGang, the result of legislation passed in 2017 after a state audit determined the database was filled with errors and lacked accountability.

Law enforcement officials contend that CalGang is an important tool that works well and that being on it doesn’t cause harm because it is so closely guarded. Police say that they are careful about who is added and that the database can be used only for investigations, not to screen people for employment or immigration status, or to fish for criminal activity.

“It doesn’t mean you can go out and pop somebody just because they are in CalGang,” said Wes McBride, a former gang deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who created the precursor to CalGang in the 1980s. “It’s an investigative tool, a clue.”

But much of the criticism of CalGang is that it remains a vehicle for racial profiling and that it is too easy to be added to it and too difficult to be removed. More than 90% of the nearly 90,000 people in the database in 2018 were men of color, predominantly Latino and black, according to data from the California Department of Justice.

To address those problems and others, the Legislature gave oversight of CalGang to the state attorney general, with a mandate to convene an advisory committee of law enforcement officials and social justice advocates to collectively hash out new rules for identifying gang members and others close enough to them to warrant scrutiny.

That committee deadlocked last year, said Sam Nunez, a Stockton community activist who served as chairperson. The process laid bare the decades-deep chasm between police and communities of color when it comes to deciphering who is dangerous. Crafting the new rules now lies solely in the hands of Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra.

Becerra’s office declined to comment on the new CalGang rules before their release but will hold meetings to gather public comment in the coming months.

The state Justice Department has already taken steps to fix CalGang, including reviewing a portion of the records in the database for accuracy. But some are worried Becerra, who has not been actively engaged in recent conversations about criminal justice reform, will not tighten the rules as much as he could — especially about what criteria should determine gang status and whether minors should be on the list at all. Both are areas where law enforcement has argued for broad discretion.

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