By Annie Sweeney
It has grown steadily over many decades with little public attention. Through countless arrests and street stops, Chicago police officers have compiled a database of street gang members that now totals a staggering 128,000 names -- and that doesn't even include juveniles.
But now critics in Chicago are joining a nationwide chorus questioning the value and fairness of these massive lists of gang members, saying they are often inaccurate, outdated and racially skewed.
Advocates complain there's no way to know if you are in the database or how to get off the list, yet your alleged gang membership is shared with other law enforcement agencies and can hurt you if you pick up a charge -- with potentially heftier bail amounts or sentences.
The overuse of the often inaccurate label by police as well as news organizations over the years has served only to stigmatize those caught up in Chicago's violence, critics contend.
The database is increasingly drawing the attention of law enforcement and lawmakers after community groups and advocates raised concerns.
Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson has held three public hearings in the past month, the most recent Thursday night, as part of an audit his office is conducting into how Chicago police gather the data on gang members.
In addition, the state Senate Public Health Committee heard from advocates and attorneys who are increasing calls to eliminate keeping any kind of database at all.
"We don't know how it operates," Rachel Murphy, staff attorney for the ACLU of Illinois, testified at the hearing. "... We are really concerned about transparency."
For its part, the Chicago Police Department, under fire over the issue since last year, has in recent months begun discussing whether to make some significant changes, including revamping its "strategic subject list," another compilation of mostly gang members that uses a computer algorithm to rank how at risk they are for violence.
As on a number of law enforcement issues, Chicago appears well behind in its reform efforts compared with some other big-city police departments. In Los Angeles, which has gang problems similar to Chicago's, advocates began pushing for reforms to a statewide database in 2012. Today the database has been cut in half, to about 100,000 names for the entire state of California, fewer than Chicago's. An appeals process to remove names from the database has also been established, but community advocates hope for even more reforms.
Experts in Los Angeles cautioned against expanded use of any data-driven policing that is not closely monitored.
"There is a role for law enforcement and for gang suppression, but it should be extremely narrowly targeted, and it should be focused on violence," said Sean Garcia-Leys, a staff attorney at LA-based Urban Peace Institute who has led legal challenges to the database in California.
'Known' gang affiliation
In Chicago, police officers are instructed to document the "known" gang affiliation of anyone they arrest or stop on the street. That designation can be slapped on people for any number of reasons, including distinctive tattoos or other markings, information from informants or an admission by those arrested or stopped, according to departmental general orders.
But critics argue that those criteria are too broad. The tag shouldn't be given except to those who commit a gang-related crime -- or it is not a worthwhile intelligence tool, they said.
According to records released to the Tribune through a Freedom of Information Act request, Chicago police records show 128,000 people listed as gang members. But even that massive number is likely far off the mark because the Police Department, citing privacy law, declined to release information on juveniles -- a key component of gangs.
The department declined to give the total number of juveniles it considers to be gang members.
The designations go back decades in some cases, raising questions about their accuracy. Two gang members were said to be 132 years old, apparent typos, while another was listed as 84. In fact, the list includes 12,000 purported gang members now 50 or older -- an eye-popping number for what is generally considered a young man's game.
Some critics point to what they say is a racial disparity in the list -- African-Americans and Hispanics make up 95 percent of those in the database -- and question whether officers are unfairly targeting predominantly minority neighborhoods on the South and West sides with excessive street stops and arrests.
At one of the inspector general hearings, a man told Ferguson that two weeks earlier he had been stopped by police with his "grandbaby" in the car -- and the officer, after running his name, asked him if he was still a Black Gangster gang member.
Over the past five years, the number of people entered into the database rose sharply -- coinciding with a significant spike in street stops under then-police Superintendent Garry McCarthy's leadership, a decision that drew the American Civil Liberty Union's criticism. In a telephone interview, McCarthy, who is running for Chicago mayor, attributed the increase to both his shifting more officers to beat patrols to increase interaction with the public as well as ordering a gang audit in 2012 to update the department's intelligence on gang affiliations and territories.
With the gang databases under fire, the Police Department is considering a more up-to-date version based on current intelligence, said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.
In a statement, the department said it plans to set up "explicit parameters" to decide how to include people in the database. Those newly added would be notified and able to appeal the designation, the department said.
The data won't be directly shared with other law enforcement agencies -- though they will continue to have access to Chicago police arrest data through existing national law enforcement data portals.
The department said it will still use the strategic subjects list to identify, track and work with those who they believe are most at risk of violence in Chicago. But a person's police-documented gang affiliation will no longer be a factor in determining his or her score, Guglielmi said.
Critics worry that keeping any such lists, though, will do more harm than good if not monitored closely enough.
"It's the next evolutionary stage of the same problem," said Garcia-Leys of the Urban Peace Institute. "At first it was index cards, then it was mainframe computers and then it was a web-based network. And now we are looking at big data analytics. ... It appears to be super scientific, but I don't think it's accurate."
A potentially dangerous tool
Attorneys and advocates welcomed the department's new efforts to improve its gang database policies but also said decades of misuse of the investigatory tool have already taken a toll.
Some of the most vocal criticism has come from the immigration rights community after two Chicago men were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after they were labeled gang members by Chicago police. A 32-year-old man agreed to drop his lawsuit against the federal agency in exchange for his release from custody. A separate lawsuit he filed was settled after Chicago police issued a certified letter saying he was erroneously listed as a gang member in Chicago.
The second case is pending in Chicago's federal court.
A Southwest Side mother, Carolina Gaete, is fighting to find out how she says her son was falsely labeled a gang member. Gaete, who attended the recent state Senate hearing, found out about his designation after he was charged in 2016 with aggravated battery following a shooting. The charges, however, were later dropped, records show.
In the officer's arrest report, Tomas Gaete was described as "a self-admitted Two-Six gang member."
Gaete, who describes herself as an overprotective mother, said her son, now 19, not only hadn't belonged to a gang but also hadn't been stopped by police, let alone arrested before he was charged in the shooting.
Now she has suspicions about why he was labeled a gang member.
"Young men of color are being targeted because we live in the 'hood," Gaete told lawmakers at the hearing.
Attorney Stephen Berrios, who represented the younger Gaete, said he is not certain why the charges against his client were dropped, but he noted that the victim's identification didn't come until months after the shooting. At a hearing to seek a reduced bond, Berrios submitted several letters from Gaete's school in which teachers described him as a quiet, artistic teen who wrote poetry.
As for being a "self-admitted gang member" in the police report?
"I just rolled my eyes," Berrios said.
Berrios said he has seen the designation countless times in police reports and often doubts its veracity. But the label can have serious consequences for his clients, he said.
"It's going to be difficult to get a favorable" plea deal from prosecutors, Berrios said.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago tested out the impact of the label in a study last year of 65,000 alleged gang members who had been arrested in Chicago. They found troubling results, including that African-Americans and Hispanics made up 96 percent of the group, said Andy Clarno, a UIC associate professor who co-authored the study on gang databases.
About two-thirds had not been arrested for unlawful use of a weapon or a crime of violence since 2006, he found.
"This raises real questions about how and why are people ending up" labeled as gang members, Clarno said. " ... It becomes a mathematical justification for continuing to target the same neighborhoods and populations and patrol (them)."
Advocates and attorneys have called for a raft of reforms and point to Portland, Ore., where police announced plans to scrap the list altogether. They say they will continue to pressure the department for change, even as Chicago officials have pledged to fix the problem themselves.
Ferguson, who continues to hold public hearings on the issue, said at a recent meeting that he found the gang database a mysterious, confusing and potentially dangerous tool.
"We don't know what the department has," Ferguson told the audience. "But we do know it has adverse consequences. ... What we know is it is a very loose system with very little public understanding. And a lot of fear."
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