Chicago police plan overhaul of gang database amid debate over usefulness

The current database will be updated and regularly audited in light of debate around similar lists in Los Angeles and New York


Annie Sweeney
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — With a high school degree and a steady job, the lifelong West Side resident said he has no interest in gang life.

But he’s the son of a former Vice Lord and grew up around members of the gang, a fact that follows him constantly.

Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson hosts a community forum in the Austin neighborhood to gather input on the Chicago Police Department's gang database. (Photo/TNS)
Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson hosts a community forum in the Austin neighborhood to gather input on the Chicago Police Department's gang database. (Photo/TNS)

Once in jail for a minor crime, he told jail staff of his connection so he wouldn’t wind up housed with a rival. Another time police stopped him while he and his friends were filming a video and took pictures of his ID and tattoos.

And so, fairly or not, the 28-year-old, who asked that his name not be used, is nearly certain he landed in the controversial computerized gang records of the Chicago Police Department.

Interim Superintendent Charlie Beck last month announced the department’s intention to build what he says will be an updated, timely and audited gang list that will be more accurate and fair to those who find their way onto it, and give more people a way to have their name deleted. Still, the creation of the new Criminal Enterprise Information System is a move that comes as local and national experts caution that collecting such data in any form is fraught with the potential for overpolicing, racial profiling and distracting officers from more effective ways to reduce crime.

Police departments across the country are struggling to walk back from decades of racially biased practices that swept thousands of African American men into the justice system and damaged trust in neighborhoods. Figuring out what gang labels even mean anymore and what or if the intelligence can help police reduce crime remains tricky at best, experts said.

"I think the question in my mind is: What purpose does the database serve? What is a street gang? What does that mean in today’s day and age,” said Chicago gang researcher Roberto Aspholm, a professor of social work at Southern Illinois University.

"The undercurrent of that approach is that street gangs are best dealt with via aggressive policing and prosecutions. And that is not a compelling perspective to me. The histories of the last 50 years in our cities have shown that that approach has not proven effective.”

Advocates in Beck’s home city of Los Angeles are raising some of the loudest alarms, with officers there recently facing discipline for providing false gang information on people they’d stopped.

But Beck, who in his 40 years at the LAPD worked in gang units and later championed partnerships with former gang members to reduce crime, has told the Tribune that while he is committed to a balance between community partnership and enforcement, the city is still suffering from too much violence not to focus on the “small percentage involved in the vast majority of crimes.”

“If you are not able to take them out of the system, they will continue to offend. So it really is important to address shootings and homicides with a strong investigative tool," Beck said. “This is not a small problem in Chicago. It is a huge problem.”

When the department started releasing information on its gang data nearly two years ago, the problems were immediately obvious.

In a list provided to the Tribune after a Freedom of Information Act request, two gang members were said to be 132 years old, apparent typos, while another was listed as 84. There were 12,000 supposed gang members in the data who were 50 or older.

The racial disparity raised questions as well. African Americans and Hispanics made up 95% of those in the database, which critics and experts said was a result of unfair targeting of predominantly minority neighborhoods on the South and West sides with excessive street stops and arrests.

At hearings on the database held by city of Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson, one older man told of being stopped by police with a grandchild in the car, and the officer, after running his name, asked him if he was still a Black Gangster gang member.

Being included in the gang data has had other real implications for some. One man filed a federal lawsuit contending he was denied a concealed carry license because of his inclusion, which limited his job prospects.

Another was targeted by immigration officers for a raid and detention based on falsely being labeled a gang member by Chicago police. Advocates have said CPD’s information being shared with ICE is not an uncommon complaint, though police now promise the new list won’t be provided to immigration authorities.

Civil rights attorneys warn of other adverse outcomes — being targeted for enhancements in a prosecution or a harsher sentence because of supposed gang affiliation. Even department leadership has acknowledged the data collection system, based on information gathered from multiple reports, had to be fixed. Beck called it “out of whack.”

“I agree there were not enough civil protections,” Beck said in his interview with the Tribune last month.

With the creation of the new Criminal Enterprise Information System, police said a thorough review of their gang data will drop the number of people on the list significantly from its current count of 130,000 names.

And the criteria for getting on the list in the first place will become more specific, they said.

People will be added if they make a voluntary self-admission of gang membership that is recorded on a video or audio device, such as an officer’s body camera, police said. In addition, a person might be added if two of the following conditions are met: An unrecorded self-admission of gang membership; the wearing of distinctive gang emblems or tattoos; the identification of the person as a gang member by a reliable informant; the use of distinctive gang signs or symbols; being identified as a gang member by another governmental or penal institution; or being arrested, charged or convicted of a crime where gang membership is an element of the offense or is documented in a court record.

In an attempt to reduce the possibility for subjective judgment by officers, the new police order states that the wearing or use of clothing, emblems, and tattoos can’t be used together to justify addition to the database absent another variable.

Names submitted for the list will be checked by supervisors and district intelligence officers before being added, police said, and people will be able to find out whether they are on the list and then appeal it. No one will be on the list more than five years, unless they commit another gang-related infraction.

Only officers who are trained on the new procedures will have access to the database, police said.

Still none of the planned reforms swayed the civil right attorneys and activists who remain committed to eradicating the pooling of such data altogether.

“I think there is not enough assurances that there will be the kind of rigor behind these processes,” said Sheila Bedi, a professor of law at Northwestern University, who has filed database-related lawsuits against the department. "We don’t have information about how police officers are going to be trained, about how supervisors are going to be trained.”

Bedi points to what has happened in the Los Angeles Police Department as a “foreshadowing” of what will happen in Chicago.

“The failures of the L.A. gang database foreshadow what is likely to happen here, particularly given the Chicago’s long history of falsifying evidence,” Bedi said. "We don’t have enough in the policy that reflects what proof (of membership) is going to be in the database. Could this all come down to what the officer said?”

Asked about the problems in L.A., Chicago police pointed to the review layers that will be in place to verify the information, but also said any “false reporting” will be taken seriously.

Beck, in his February comments to the Tribune said, despite the criticism, it was his experience in Los Angeles that convinced him that Chicago needed to have a robust gang database.

"I know it works because I have been using it for decades in California, and we were able to reduce crime to historic lows by having accurate, timely evidence,” Beck told the Tribune, when he announced Chicago’s new Criminal Enterprise Information System.

But the database used by all of California law enforcement, CalGang, has been highly controversial, including in recent months.

In January LAPD Chief Michel Moore announced that several officers in one of the department’s specialized crime suppression units were the subject of an investigation for falsifying gang data — information that only came to light after a mother appealed her son having been identified as a gang member.

“Given the serious nature of the alleged misconduct, all involved officers have been assigned to inactive duty or removed from the field,” according to a Jan. 7 LAPD statement announcing that several officers were suspected of falsifying field interview cards.

Melanie Ochoa, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, noted other problems that suggest L.A. officers are struggling with documentation. Ochoa pointed to the city’s voluntary removal between 2016 and 2018 of nearly 7,500 individuals from its civil gang injunction list after the ACLU and other L.A.-based advocacy groups filed a lawsuit.

"That goes to show you when they have to actually defend designating people as gang members they are not willing to do it,” said Ochoa.

Ochoa said she had not read Chicago’s new directive, but she would encourage any department considering retaining gang data to ask themselves some difficult questions, including whether they have the “restraint and wherewithal” to not be racially biased as they do so.

Chicago’s training around the gang database has yet to be developed. In a statement, officials said it would “address implicit bias and procedural justice” as a way to make sure officers don’t rely on things such as race or gender or “culture” to decide someone is in a gang.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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