This week, news came out that the Los Angeles Police Department will be prohibited from using or contributing to the California gang database. Additionally, other law enforcement agencies throughout the state can no longer access the LAPD’s entries in the state gang registry (which make up nearly 25% of all the records in the system). Attorney General Xavier Becerra made the announcement after 24 police officers from Los Angeles are under investigation (including 3 who have been formally charged) for falsifying records to add people to the database although they were never involved with a gang.
About The Gang Database
The statewide gang database (CalGang) was established in 1998 as a way for police to find out if a person is an alleged gang member. Since the registry was established, people have been arguing that it disproportionately targets people of color and that it has been too easy for innocent people to be added to the database. That’s hardly surprising, when you consider that law enforcement officers need only decide that someone meets two qualifying factors on a list of subjective traits that might indicate someone is involved with a gang. These include:
- Admitting to being a gang member
- Being identified as a gang member by a “reliable source”
- Being arrested or suspected, though not necessarily convicted, for a crime consistent with gang activities (which could include burglaries, drug crimes, murder and more)
- Associating with people already documented as gang members (including family members)
- Spending time in known gang areas (which may include public parks)
- Using gang symbols and signs
- Wearing clothing associated with street gangs (including certain colors or sports teams)
- Having gang tattoos
- Posting materials related to gangs on social media (including posting memes on Facebook or Twitter)
It’s easy to see how just having a family member in a gang (or one wrongly added to the gang database) and living in a bad neighborhood could leave someone guilty by association. And if that person is later accused of a minor theft crime, it could easily be charged as a gang crime in court, which means a simple misdemeanor would then be charged as a felony, leaving the individual facing a potential penalty that could include years behind bars.
Even without being accused of a crime, being listed as a gang member can have a detrimental effect on someone’s future. Police can rely on someone’s listing as a reason to detain and question them and some employers even search the registry prior to hiring someone. These are some of the many reasons privacy advocates are arguing for police reform regarding the rights of suspected gangsters.
Even before the CalGang database was established, individual law enforcement agencies held their own registries with similar inclusion criteria. In fact, in 1992 the Los Angeles District Attorney announced that the LAPD had registered 47% of all black men in the city between 21 and 24 that lived in the county. Even then these types of announcements brought awareness to the need for careful reviews of such potentially life-changing data. But instead, the state doubled down with the CalGang system in the interest of supposed public safety.
Nearly 20 years after this new statewide system was enacted, an audit revealed shocking facts about the gang database. Nearly one fifth of the 100,000 entries in the system had little to no information backing up why the person was listed as an alleged gang member. Though those listed on the registry are required to be erased after five years with no documented gang activity, many people remained in the system.
Perhaps the most disturbing finding was the names of dozens of children who were under the age of one when they were added to the database. 28 of these records claimed the infants were included after “admitting” to being gang members.
Effects on San Diego Police Agencies
Xavier Becerra has urged all law enforcement agencies to review their own entries on the CalGangs registry, which is certainly advisable for our own local police and sheriff’s departments in San Diego. While one would hope that our local agencies would have less problems because most San Diego County departments require people meet three criteria to be documented as gang members, a recent inquiry by inewsource found that these agencies frequently break their own policies by using only two criteria regularly.
Local law enforcement agencies have contributed 6% of the CalGang database entries according to KPBS, which are disproportionately made up of people of color. In fact, while only 34% of the county’s population is Hispanic, they make up 70% of the county’s additions to the database between 2017 and 2019. Similarly 19% of San Diego’s documented gang members were black, only 5% of the population is black. While 45% of the area’s population is white, they only make up 3% of the gang database entries.
It’s worth adding that there have already been many attempts to reform the gang registry. A new law in 2017 required agencies to notify anyone added to the database and to allow people to appeal their inclusion on the registries. This allowed inewsource to review the reasons many people have been added by looking over the letters sent to individuals to report why they were added to the database. The publication found that overwhelmingly the reasons were linked to knowing an alleged gang member and visiting areas where street gangs frequent. Reports have also discovered that removal of listings has been sadly difficult for many people, with only 11 requests granted of the only 53 applications people have made to be taken off of the CalGang list.
The 2017 law originally included provisions to remove people after three years if they did not participate in any gang activities, however law enforcement agencies around the state protested until this part of the criminal justice reform bill was removed. With all the recent demands for police reform after the many Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd though, it is possible the gang crime registry may soon be reformed far more in the upcoming year.
If you have any questions about this database or potential police reform measures, please contact Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free consultation.