THE DANGERS OF GANG DATABASES AND GANG POLICING

By Vaidya Gullapalli, The Appeal

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An NYPD database labels over 18,000 people in New York City as active gang members. Three of the people labeled this way are 13 years old, and more than 400 others are under 18. Nearly 99 percent of the people whose names are in the database are people of color. Nearly 88 percent are Black or Latinx.

If your name is entered into the database, you have no way of knowing about it and no way of contesting it. The NYPD does not notify people when it classifies them as gang members and there is no mechanism for challenging the designation.

Numerous groups have questioned the constitutionality of the database and called for an investigation into it. Last year, the Legal Aid Society of New York launched a website to assist people with requests under the state’s Freedom of Information Law to find out whether their names were in the database.

The latest figures about the NYPD’s database came from police officials at a hearing before a City Council committee last week. A recently introduced bill would require notification when a minor is included in the database. Police say this would compromise their policing goals. Some critics of the database say the bill does too little.

Across the country, people have been calling for significant reform of, or even an end to, gang databases and gang policing measures. The criticisms are similar—about a process that defines gang affiliation too broadly, carelessly criminalizes people of color, and exposes them to wrongful arrests, convictions, and deportations.

In Chicago, where there is a police department database and a sheriff’s regional database, there have been numerous efforts to end their use entirely. This year, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance to end use of the regional database and pave the way for its eventual destruction. The database included 25,000 names.

The Chicago Police Department database is several times that size, containing the names of an estimated 128,000 adults and at least 33,000 young people 17 and younger.  

Reporting by ProPublica revealed glaring errors in both the police department database and Cook County regional database. The county database included hundreds listed as dead or having no known gang affiliation. The police department’s database, as of last year, included two men listed as 132 years old and several 118-year-olds.

The errors can have devastating consequences for those included, particularly as deportation efforts have been ramped up under the Trump administration. In 2017, ICE agents raided Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez’s home and violently arrested him (despite his partial paralysis from being shot three weeks earlier). He was placed in deportation proceedings. Catalan-Ramirez’s attorneys eventually learned that his arrest was the result of the Chicago police including him in the database and designating him a gang member—of two different, and rival, gangs. The city eventually admitted its mistake and Catalan-Ramirez was released from ICE custody in January 2018.

Across the country, there have been instances of alleged gang affiliation being treated as a factor in immigration proceedings, bail decisions and sentencing, and treatment when in jail or prison.The NYPD maintains that it does not share information with other agencies but numerous attendees at last week’s hearing said they had experience to the contrary.

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