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Cook County unplugs ‘gang database,’ but critics still have concerns

Cook County Jail at 2700 S California Ave.

The Cook County Sheriff's Office has unplugged its gang database nearly seven years after taking it over from an Northwest Indiana drug task force. | Sun-Times file photo

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office has “terminated” its so-called gang database nearly seven years after taking it over from a drug task force in Lake County, Indiana.

The database — formally known as the Regional Gang Intelligence Database — was taken out of service Jan. 15, officials said. Its records have been stored on encrypted hard drives and will be destroyed in 2024 in accordance with federal records retention law.

The sheriff’s office opted to end the database because it was unable to build a robust intelligence-sharing operation with all of the police jurisdictions in the county.

“We were having to expend resources maintaining [the database] for no purpose that benefited the residents of the county and the sheriff’s office,” Cara Smith, chief of policy for Sheriff Tom Dart, said Thursday. “The need for us to be involved with this database became unnecessary.”

Smith also said the sheriff’s office had no intention of replacing the database.

As of July, the database contained the names of 25,000 people suspected of being affiliated with more than 400 gangs and gang factions. More than 400 people in the database were listed as dead and 150 others had a gang listing of “unknown” or “null,” according to a report by ProPublica Illinois.

The data came directly from detainees self-reporting their gang affiliation when they entered Cook County Jail or state prisons. About 370 government agencies in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin could obtain and add information to the database.

Gang databases in Cook County and elsewhere have been criticized by civil liberties groups for having adverse effects on the lives of those listed even after they have left the gang life.

Data sharing among law enforcement agencies on suspected gang members has also been called into question, particularly in relation to information shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency charged with arresting and deporting immigrants.

Gang databases have also been said to disproportionately affect innocent blacks and Latinos who live in areas with high gang activity.

Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya (7th) said she applauds the sheriff’s office’s  decision to terminate the database. But Anaya wants the sheriff to hold countywide public hearings to inform the public about the defunct database and to ensure best practices moving forward.

Although the database is now being decommissioned, “we don’t know if it’s going to be brought up under another name,” she said.

Anaya also worries information from the database could possibly be stored on the servers of the hundreds of government agencies which had access to it.

“The sheriff’s office said no one has access to the data and that no one can download it. But in this day and age, what kind of guaranteed is that? We need to have public hearings to clear up any concerns,” she said.

Both the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois State Police maintain separate databases of suspected gang affiliates.

According to ProPublica Illinois, the state police have amassed a gang database of more than 90,000 people.

Chicago police track gang affiliation in a data “warehouse” called the Citizen and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting system. As of 2018, more than 120,000 people were listed in the system.

The sheriff’s office will continue to “interview detainees upon intake at Cook County Jail to gather information which assists in classification of them and enhances the security of staff and detainees,” according to a letter sent to county commissioners Monday.