Civilian oversight commission poised to bury CPD’s error-filled gang database

The Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability also will hold a public forum Thursday with CPD Counterterrorism Chief Larry Snelling, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s choice to become Chicago’s permanent police superintendent.

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Protesters Chicago Police Department gang database rally City Hall

The use of a gang database by the Chicago Police Department has been a hot issue for years. This protest at City Hall was in February 2020.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The Chicago Police Department’s error-filled gang database would be permanently scrapped — and any future information-collecting on city street gangs would have to pass muster with a civilian oversight panel — under a long-awaited crackdown poised for approval Thursday.

The Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability will take a major step toward honoring one of Mayor Brandon Johnson’s campaign promises — at the same meeting where Chicagoans will get their first crack at questioning Counterterrorism Chief Larry Snelling, the mayor’s choice to become Chicago’s permanent police superintendent.

The public forum with the new, $260,004-a-year-superintendent-in-waiting will be followed by a confirmation hearing Friday before the City Council’s Police Committee and next week’s vote by the full City Council. The forum begins at 6 p.m. Thursday at the National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St.

Three years ago, CPD unveiled plans to upgrade and remodel its gang database to eliminate racial and ethnic biases and mistakes pinpointed by then-Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

Those mistakes included two people listed as 132 years old and 13 people recorded as 118 years old.

The revised “Criminal Enterprise Information System” would have included a provision empowering the Chicago Police Board to hear appeals from people who wanted their names removed. The old system had no appeals process.

It also left out the Chicago Outfit and biker gangs such as the Outlaws, according to a lawsuit filed at the time. In fact, it contained the names of only 23 white supremacists. Of the 128,000 adults on the old list, 70% were Black, 25% Latino and 5% white.

Former CPD Supt. David Brown was so determined to implement the revised gang database and retain information he viewed as critical to crime-fighting that he created a “special order” to do it. It was an end-run around the civilian oversight panel, which has jurisdiction over all general orders.

That triggered a squabble that dragged on behind the scenes for months.

Only after the Commission on Public Safety and Accountability threatened to tie up all police general orders involving data collection did Brown finally agree he could not use a special order to implement the new gang database.

Commission President Anthony Driver said the general order poised for approval at Thursday’s meeting will both “kill the old gang database” and require any future collection of information on Chicago street gangs to be implemented by general order and, therefore, ratified by the seven-member commission.

“The goal of this is to formally put an end to the gang database as the city of Chicago knows it and put some guardrails up so that something like that never happens again,” Driver said.

“The gang database has been a historically racist and inaccurate tool that the department has used — and other city agencies have used — in a way that discriminated against folks. And we want to make sure that we put an end to that.”

Driver said CPD officials have been unable to prove to commission members that the new database corrected old mistakes.

“I don’t buy it. Not one ounce. That version of it was riddled with problems. We would have been in the same situation years from now. They would have just rebuilt the list,” Driver said.

“The checks and balances they put in place were simply saying that if Officer Driver were to pull somebody over, it would have to be approved by a supervisor in my district or the next person [up the chain of command]. All three of those folks are in the same district and work together. That’s a system of the police policing the police … They blindly sign off on it. That’s not the appropriate checks and balances.”

The proposed appeals process was similarly flawed, Driver said.

“If you’re labeled a gang member, the only way to get off is to go down to headquarters, apply to get off and go through the Police Board in a quasi-judicial process. That’s over-burdensome to me … You want folks to take off work during a weekday when they shouldn’t have been on the list in the first place,” he said.

It makes no sense for the city to spend “millions and millions of dollars on violence intervention and turn-around programs,” then force people who want to turn their lives around to jump through hoops, Driver said.

“If I don’t want to be in a gang anymore, you’re gonna send me through a couple months’ long process to get my name off this list? If the city is doing what it’s supposed to be doing, then people should be given redemption,” he said.

The police department didn’t respond to questions from the Sun-Times.

Sheila Bedi was among the attorneys filing a class action against the city in 2018, alleging the database violated Chicagoans’ constitutional rights and calling for it to be dismantled.

The lawsuit was settled two years later. The city made some concessions while admitting no wrongdoing. In an interview Monday, Bedi said the plaintiffs didn’t agree to changes that would have allowed the department to maintain a database of alleged gang members.

She said the continued efforts to forge ahead with a revamped gang database “speaks to the intransigence of CPD.”

“Even in the face of all this documented harm,” she said, “it wants to cling onto these policies that are so deeply racialized and have given CPD the ability to create such devastation.”

She noted Mayor Brandon Johnson, while a Cook County commissioner, helped push through an ordinance ending county use of a controversial database. Running for mayor, Johnson had vowed to “erase” the city’s database but hasn’t taken any public action since being elected.

“The hope is that the mayor’s office is engaging with the kind of oversight that’s necessary to ensure that CPD stops the gamesmanship and recognizes the public demand for the end of the gang database,” Bedi said. “The gang database isn’t doing anything to keep anyone safer and is causing such significant harm to Chicago’s Black and Brown communities.”

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