He's a Gang Intervention Worker. But California Police Call Him a Gang Member.

By Katie Flaherty, NBC News

Larry Sanders, 58, a gang interventionist contracted by the city of Los Angeles, was stopped by the LAPD's gang task where he works and added to the city's gang database.Jim Seida / NBC News

Larry Sanders, 58, a gang interventionist contracted by the city of Los Angeles, was stopped by the LAPD's gang task where he works and added to the city's gang database.Jim Seida / NBC News

Larry Sanders has lived his entire life within a three-block radius of the park in South Los Angeles where he works as a gang interventionist.

Green Meadows Park is where his kids grew up, and now it is where he takes his four grandchildren to play. It’s also where he was stopped by police in April and added to the city’s gang database ― accused of the same activity he works hard to prevent in his neighborhood.

Across the country, gang databases are coming under scrutiny by justice reform advocates who say the lists exemplify police overreach that can lead to civil rights violations.

California, the first state to create a computerized gang database, is reviewing its regulations, grappling with a system prone to discretionary practices that remains largely unregulated outside of law enforcement.

Despite previous reforms, it still disproportionately affects underprivileged communities of color.

Sanders was not on the clock but socializing with friends the afternoon of April 29, when police from the city’s gang task force pulled up. The officers asked the men if they were on parole or probation. None of them were. Then without explanation the officers told them to lift their shirts and show their tattoos.

The police department had received a call about people drinking in public, Sanders recalled the officers telling them. There was no alcohol present, but groups nearby were drinking and were never questioned, Sanders said. The officers ran IDs and then left without further explanation. It was “the regular get down,” said Sanders, 58, who dismissed the interaction as one of many humiliations he has experienced as a black man.

Weeks later, he received a letter saying he had “met the minimum criteria” to be designated a gang member or associate. The notice had a checklist justifying Sanders’ inclusion with three neatly placed ‘X’s claiming he was ‘associating with documented gang members,’ ‘frequenting gang areas’ and had been ‘arrested for offenses consistent with gang activity.’

Shocked and confused, Sanders said he had not been arrested that day, but had been stopped and released more than 20 years ago for something unrelated. He has never been part of a gang.

“I’m like, man, how the hell did they figure that just by looking at me?” he said. He applied in June to be removed from the database, but is still waiting to hear about his case.

Sanders, who also goes by the name L.V., short for Large Variety, gained notoriety in 1995 for his vocals in Coolio’s Grammy-winning hit “Gangsta’s Paradise.” He still makes solo records and performs with South Central Cartel, a rap group whose music videos often invoke images and lyrics associated with gangs and gang violence.

But it’s just a persona, Sanders said.

“We been singing about gangster music because that’s what we had to live through,” he said. “You know we had to dress or talk like this or act the way we act to get through life. … We had riots going on, we had a lot of people dying. … You can’t just say, ‘Oh, look how he’s dressed.’”

Los Angeles was the first city to create a computerized database in 1987 to allow officers to easily access and share information with other police departments. A statewide system known as CalGang followed a few years later and was exported across the U.S. Now, there are at least 339 gang databases nationwide, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice statistics. Most are run independent of each other and without federal oversight.

Concerns over the integrity of the city’s database bubbled up in the early 1990s when the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office released a report saying nearly half of all black youths in the city were in it.The news sparked outcry from critics who said it was evidence of systematic police profiling.

Audit reveals inaccuracies, privacy issues

Not much changed until 2016 when the state audited CalGang,revealing inaccuracies and privacy issues, including entries that listed children under a year old. It also found more than 600 records that had been in the system well beyond the standard five-year purge date, including many that were set to remain there beyond 100 years.

The audit also shined a light on the lack of oversight and transparency, leading officials to transfer supervision of CalGang from law enforcement agencies to the state Attorney General’s office. It placed a moratorium on the system while thousands of records were purged for improper entry or overdue expiration dates. As of October 2018, the database held 88,670 records, about half as many as it once did.

It also found that at least three law enforcement agencies used the database for employment screenings in violation of CalGang policy.

Since then, other states have looked to California as a bellwether for reform. In 2015, the state enacted a bill requiring police to notify minors when they were added to the database and soon extended the requirement to adults. Some states, including New York, still do not require notification.

The California Department of Justice recently proposed new regulations, which would narrow the criteria used to label someone as a gang member or associate. If approved, the rules would take effect Jan. 1. The DOJ has proposed removing several of the nebulous categories that swept Sanders up, including hanging out in gang areas and associating with gang members. Both associating with gang members and frequenting gang areas are part of Sanders’ job as an intervention worker with the Summer Night Lights Program, a city initiative that aims to reduce violence in at-risk communities.

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