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EDITORIAL: Overhaul Chicago’s gang member database — but don’t chuck it

Luis Vicente Pedrote-Salinas, 25, shown here with attorney Vanessa del Valle, says he is facing deportation next week because Chicago police falsely identified him as a gang member. The MacArthur Justice Center filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Tuesday seeking to have his name removed from the CPD gang database. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

In this 2017 photo, Luis Vicente Pedrote-Salinas, 25, shown here with attorney Vanessa del Valle, said he faced deportation because Chicago police falsely identified him as a gang member in its controversial gang database. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

If you’re not a gang member, your name has no business on a list with real Gangster Disciples and Conservative Vice Lords.

And if your name mistakenly ends up on such a list, you ought to be able to get it removed.

Sounds simple and fair, right?

Unfortunately, when it comes to the Chicago Police Department’s gang database, it doesn’t work that way.


Mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle this week said she wants to dismantle the database, which has come under fire as a tool for discriminating against black and brown Chicagoans instead of as a tool for good policing.

“It’s part of the culpability of the police department,” Preckwinkle said. “People don’t know how they got there and it’s used to damage their lives. That’s a real challenge to police-community relations.”

Preckwinkle’s view wasn’t surprising to us. She had already criticized the gang database a few weeks ago in her written responses to a Sun-Times candidate questionnaire. Fellow mayoral candidates Amara Enyia and LaShawn Ford also raised the issue. Enyia wrote that she wants to get rid of the database, while Ford, without elaborating, wrote that he’s “working on state legislation related to problems” with it. 

Meanwhile, there’s also the matter of a federal class-action lawsuit. The MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University sued the city last year on behalf of four young men — three black, one Latino — who say their names were wrongly added to the database.

All told, some 195,000 adults and teens, most of them black and Latino, have had their names added to the database, MacArthur estimates, and some of the mistakes fairly scream. Lots of folks listed in the database are in their 70s and 80s — still gangbanging at that age? — and 13 people are supposedly 118 years old.

People whose names have been added to the database unfairly are in danger of being wrongfully arrested, disqualified from jobs or housing and, in the case of immigrants, wrongfully deported.

Clearly, we’ve got a problem. But how to fix it?

We believe the answer is to overhaul the database, making it rigorously accurate, not scrapping it altogether.

Chicago really does have a gang problem. No debate there. And the police must keep tabs on them. Because good people are paying a terrible price.

Look no further than the slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, six years ago this month. The young gang member who killed her — and who was sentenced on Monday to 84 years in prison — was out to hurt rival gang members when he shot wildly into a crowd of innocent teens in a South Side park.

Fixing Chicago’s gang database — making it true and credible — should begin with public hearings to shed more light, for a skeptical public, on the pluses and minuses of even keeping such a list.

“We truly do not know the full scope of the problem to begin the process of compiling a fix,” Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union told us. “Our hope is that such a ‘deep dive’ into the use and process of the database would provide the foundation for a discussion in the community about restructuring any database that is going to be used.”

California did just that, Yohnka pointed out. The result: tougher regulation and oversight of a database that is compiled according to considerably higher standards. California also has set up a clear and formal process for people to challenge the information.

The MacArthur Justice Center, in its suit against Chicago, has asked a federal court to impose four reforms. They seem so obvious:

• 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 on the list.

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

If Chicago is serious about both police reform and fighting gangs, overhauling the gang database is essential.

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