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Chicago takes a much-needed step to overhaul police gang database

The City Council has voted to give people the right to challenge their name being listed in the error-ridden gang database. That’s just the first step, and it’s overdue.

Community activists speak out against the Chicago Police Department’s “gang database” during a press conference at City Hall, Thursday afternoon, April 11, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Community activists speak out against the Chicago Police Department’s “gang database” during a press conference at City Hall in April 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Consider the case of a West Side man who hoped to become a Cook County sheriff’s deputy. But when he submitted his application, he was shocked to discover his name appeared in the Chicago Police Department’s gang database.

Consider, as well, the minister from the South Side who learned his name was in the database after he was pulled over by police — and found out he was identified as a gang leader and considered armed and dangerous.

“That wasn’t my story,” he said, theorizing that his advocacy work may have led to his inclusion in the much-maligned database.

Or perhaps he was added because of where he lived. In certain neighborhoods, organizers for Black Youth 100 have claimed, police automatically entered the names of everyone they pulled over.

We’re dismayed to hear these stories, as anyone who cares about fairness ought to be. Sadly, we’re not surprised: The Chicago Police Department’s error-ridden database — formally known as the Criminal Enterprise Information System — has been under fire for years.

The clock is ticking loudly — and has been — to get this right.

We continue to believe that a database of gang members can be a legitimate crime-fighting tool against the gang violence that is a scourge on our city.

But sensible reforms, such as those recommended by the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University, have been far too long in materializing.

The City Council last week finally took a much-needed step toward full reform, authorizing the Chicago Police Board to hear appeals from people who want their names removed from the list. Finally, Chicagoans who have been wrongly included will have the right to have their names deleted and get on with their lives, whether it’s getting a job, volunteering at their child’s school or being able to rent a place to live.

But City Council critics made a good point: Why have an appeals process to get off a list, when there’s no clear, publicly available criteria as yet to determine whose name gets added?

“This is backwards. And the fact that we’re gonna fix it later is just bunk,” as Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th Ward) said.

Sensible and necessary reforms

Before departing his post, now-former Inspector General Joe Ferguson told alderpersons at his final budget hearing the city continues to use an inaccurate system that “hangs over the lives of tens of thousands of Chicagoans, over 96% are Black- and Brown-skinned. We need to clean that up.”

A 2019 audit by Ferguson’s office concluded the database was a “deeply flawed collection of gang data, with poor quality controls and inadequate protections for procedural rights.”

Justice reformers estimate thousands of people are wrongly listed, through no fault of their own. Groups such as Beyond Legal Aid, Black Youth 100, Organized Communities Against Deportations and Mijente want officials to abolish the database altogether. The MacArthur Justice Center estimates the database contains nearly 200,000 names dating back decades.

In a federal lawsuit it filed on behalf of four young men — three Black and one Latino — who said their names were wrongly added to the database, the center asked for these sensible reforms, which we support:

• Set clear criteria for adding names to the database.

• Notify people whose names have been added.

• Offer a hearing to anybody who wants to challenge their name’s inclusion.

• Prohibit the police from sharing the list with any third party.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is promising the right things: that CPD has “completely changed the criteria” needed to get on the list to include “many, many identifiers of the person,” and that to get on the list, every name has to be approved by an “exempt member” of the department — “not just a line police officer.”

Lightfoot also promised outreach to those whose names are in the database, so they are aware of their right to appeal.

All of which is good to hear. A formal apology to those who were denied jobs or otherwise harmed because they were wrongly included would also go a long way toward rebuilding trust in CPD.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.