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Unverified, outdated police gang database lists 134,000 names, watchdog says

The Chicago Police Department’s “gang database” isn’t so much an effective crime-fighting tool as it is a disorganized hodgepodge of outdated and often unverified information, according to a blistering report released Thursday by the Office of the Inspector General.

In fact, according to the OIG, the “database” label is something of a misnomer as the CPD has collected and stored gang data in more than a dozen places in just the last decade.

“OIG found that CPD has captured, reported, and visualized gang-related data in at least 18 different forms, records, and systems of records in the past 10 years, although CPD was not able to definitively account for all such information in its possession and control,” the 160-page audit reads.

Announcing the release of the report at a City Hall press conference Thursday, Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson noted the collateral damage a person can face once they’re designated a gang member by the CPD.

“The impact that it has on these individuals extends far beyond the intended law enforcement purposes for which CPD collects and utilizes this information,” Ferguson said.

The report says that, in its current form, the CPD’s gang data collection and storing methods exacerbate the already strained relationship between law enforcement and minority communities.

“These [gang member] designations may contribute to a variety of adverse consequences for individuals and communities in, among others, law enforcement, criminal justice, immigration and employment contexts,” the report added.

The audit suggested the City Council consider amending Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance, which says that city agencies will not ask for or disclose a person’s immigration status to federal authorities unless that person has been identified as a known gang member either in a law enforcement agency’s database or by their own admission.

Thursday, Ferguson also called for the City Council’s Public Safety Committee to have a hearing on the CPD’s gang data practices. Ferguson added that, as it stands now, more than 500 outside agencies currently have unlimited access to the CPD’s gang data.

Karen Sheley, director of the ACLU of Illinois’ police practices project, said in a statement:

“The city will have a lot of work to do in cleaning up its act on this database. Before it starts, the City Council should call hearings to examine why the department rejected some of the Inspector General’s recommendations and only partially accepted others.

“The CPD has outright refused to work with impacted communities in developing a fix to this problem and has also refused to place additional safeguards for juveniles labeled as gang members. Chicagoans deserve to know why.”

Among its findings, the OIG noted:
• the department “lacks sufficient controls” for creating, storing and sharing gang-related data
• the CPD’s gang information practices “lack procedural fairness protections”
• the methods by which people are designated gang members “raise significant data quality concerns”
• the department’s practices and lack of transparency regarding its gang designations strain police-community relations

Chicago’s gang structure has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. The days of groups following a strict hierarchical structure are largely gone, having given way to smaller, splintered factions. And while the drug trade still fuels many gang conflicts in the city — especially on the West Side — interpersonal conflicts among various gang members also drive a substantial portion of the city’s gun violence.

The CPD has been slow to adjust to the shifting gang landscape, according to the OIG.

The audit listed more than two dozen recommendations that could help the department catch up. Among them:
• evaluating whether the people and groups designated as gangs meet the legal criteria
• inventorying all gang-related data collection points
• more closely monitoring the CPD’s data sharing policy with other law enforcement agencies
• requiring officers undertake more training in gang-related data collection
• requiring the inclusion of “specified types of evidence required to support the proposed gang designations”
• notifying people that they are on the list of gang members and providing them a way to appeal that designation

Between January 1997 and November 2018, more than 134,000 people were designated as gang members by Chicago police. Eighty-eight percent of those designations were made because an arrestee told police about their gang affiliation. However, “there were 15,648 individuals for which CPD has never listed a reason for gang designation,” according to the OIG.

Additionally, “OIG’s analysis of Gang Arrest Card data found that Black, African American, and Latinx persons comprise 95% of the 134,242 individuals designated as gang members during arrest, and are designated at both younger and older ages as well as issued more Gang Arrest Cards per person than White gang designees.”

Last summer, a federal class-action lawsuit was filed against the city by several community groups who are asking a judge to impose far more stringent standards on the CPD as it relates to its gang data collection practices.

Speaking at a press conference held a few hours after the OIG audit was released, Sheila Bedi, an attorney representing the community groups suing the city, said the report “vindicated every single claim the plaintiffs filed in their litigation.”

“Because of the way this data is gathered, because of the way it is used, there is no legitimate law enforcement purpose to continue to collect this data and the report proves this indisputably,” she added.

For its part, the Chicago Police Department, with a few exceptions, largely agreed with the OIG’s recommendations and signaled its intent to create and implement a new system to track gang membership in Chicago. No timetable was established for the new system, and the department said that the current gang data storing methods would remain in place, according to the OIG.

“CPD acknowledged that its gang information policies, practices, and technology had impeded the Department’s ability to maintain updated and relevant information,” the audit reads. “It should be noted that these proposed controls and reforms do not apply to the gang information currently maintained by the Department and that this unverified, outdated information will remain available to any officer or department that currently has access to this information.”

The OIG also suggested the department engage with community stakeholders and publicly evaluate whether collecting gang membership data “services CPD’s violence reduction efforts.”

In an April 5 letter to Joseph Lipari, the city’s deputy inspector general for public safety, police Supt. Eddie Johnson disagreed, saying: “CPD does not concur that a public evaluation is necessary, and further asserts that such an evaluation could put certain gang crime strategies or information at risk and negatively impact the public and officer safety.”

Shortly after Ferguson’s press conference Thursday, the CPD released a draft of a new departmental directive that would govern its future gang data collection practices in the proposed “Criminal Enterprise Database.”

In the new policy, a person’s admission to being in a gang would have to be recorded for it to be used as the basis for a “gang member” designation.

The “gang member” label would also have to meet two of the following criteria:
• The person wears distinctive gang markers, such as tattoos or gang colors that “would not reasonably be expected” to be worn by someone not in a gang.
• The person uses symbols or signals that are solely associated with gang activity.
• The person is identified as a gang member by a person “who has provided reliable information to the Department in the past” and whose claims can be corroborated.
• The person is identified as a gang member by a state, local or federal jail or prison.
• The person is charged with a crime in which gang membership is “an element of the offense.”

To be removed from the proposed gang database, a person would have to go five years without being arrested or charged with “a qualifying criminal offense.” Also, a gang member designation could be removed from a person’s name if the information that led to the label proves to be inaccurate.

Jesus Salazar, 37, said that despite leaving his gang 10 years ago, he is still designated as a gang member by the CPD. Salazar now works as a violence intervention program manager at Enlace Chicago, a community group in Little Village.

“I’ve been an asset to my community, I’ve been an asset to young folks in my community who have no aspirations but to join a gang,” Salazar said. “And I try to steer them away from gangs. I put my life on the lines through mediations on a daily basis and I try to combat gang violence as much as I can. I’ve been pulled over, harassed because of my designation in the gang database.”

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