Reformers want California police to stop using a gang database seen as racially biased
Police reform activists this week called on California’s top law enforcement officer to stop use of a secretive and problem-plagued database of suspected gang members, frustrated that it continues to function under rules they say disproportionately target Black and Latino men and that were ordered fixed by the state Legislature nearly three years ago.
The database, known as CalGang, is used by law enforcement agencies across the state to store names and personal details of nearly 90,000 people suspected of being active gang members or possibly associating with them.
In 2016, a state audit found that CalGang was riddled with questionable entries and errors such as the inclusion of year-old children. More recently, the LAPD has investigated officers accused of falsifying information in order to add people to the list. The department announced last week that it was suspending use of CalGang.
But the imposition of statewide regulations — which were legally mandated to be completed by Jan. 1, until California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra extended the deadline for six months — is overdue, with no clear end in sight. This leaves CalGang functioning largely under old rules that some argue constitute racial profiling. Prompted by the protests over the death of George Floyd, police reform activists want to stop agencies from adding names or using existing names for investigations until the system is revised.
“Millions of people exercising their First Amendment rights these past weeks have demonstrated the insufficiency of the California Department of Justice’s actions to meet their longstanding demand that law enforcement treat everyone with respect and dignity,” read a letter sent Monday to Becerra and signed by more than three dozen organizations, including the ACLU. “Nowhere is that more true than in the department’s ineffective effort to reform law enforcement’s use of the CalGang database.”
Becerra’s office said Tuesday it was reviewing the letter and that “the rule-making process takes time.”
“The Legislature directed our office to develop regulations to improve the quality and integrity of CalGang, and the proposed regulations are intended to do just that,” the statement continued.
In 2017, state lawmakers passed a measure to place CalGang under the purview of Becerra’s Department of Justice. Becerra was charged with purging the database of old or inaccurate records and creating new rules for adding people. Advocates hoped those rules would diminish the ability of officers to use only subjective criteria, such as the color of clothing or the area in which a person is seen, as evidence of gang membership. While thousands of records were purged, thousands more have been added in recent years.
Though Becerra originally extended the deadline for finishing the new regulations to July 1, that extension has since been lifted, leaving it uncertain when the revised rules might be completed, said Sean Garcia-Leys, a lawyer with the Urban Peace Institute who has helped clients fight legal battles to get off the list.
“They just crossed out where the deadline goes and put nothing in its place,” said Garcia-Leys. “The idea that this sort of policing would continue … for years after the Legislature put a stop to it is unacceptable.”
Reform advocates also are unhappy with the latest draft of proposed rules, which they argue leave too much discretion for officers. Garcia-Leys and others hope to tighten CalGang’s scope so that people in the orbit of suspected gang members, such as teachers, coaches and romantic partners, could not easily be included.
In a proposal last summer, Becerra suggested cutting back on the reasons a person could be added to CalGang. In December, he reversed on tightening regulations amid objections from law enforcement members, who argued that their expertise in gang identification should be taken into account and that such discretion was necessary because gangs have become more adept at evading scrutiny.
Law enforcement officials have said the database is a valuable tool for investigating gang crimes and presents little risk to those on it because the information cannot be used to initiate police action.
But on Friday, the LAPD announced its own moratorium on all entries into CalGang amid pushes for police reform. That came months after the department announced it was investigating officers from the LAPD’s Metropolitan Division for falsifying field interview cards and entering incorrect information to the database.
As of late May, 18 officers were under scrutiny in the probe.
“Based on recent audits and ongoing complaint investigations, the accuracy of the database has been called into question,” the department said in a statement announcing its suspension of CalGang. “To strengthen community trust and avoid any adverse impact on individuals, particularly in communities of color, the department will no longer use this resource.”
The department said the database will remain accessible for the sole purpose of removing entries that come to the LAPD’s attention as being erroneous. Officials have previously said that the LAPD was increasing oversight of how it reviews requests for removal.
The civilian Los Angeles Police Commission will be receiving reports on investigations and audits into the database, its president, Eileen Decker, said Tuesday.
Ben “Taco” Owens, a gang interventionist and member of the Southern California Cease Fire Committee, said he approved of the LAPD’s decision to stop using CalGang and believes a similar statewide ban is necessary.
“The community has a different perspective on who and what is a gang member,” he said. “It might not be attire; it might not be tattoos.”
Owens said he often encounters people who say they’ve been erroneously or unfairly put into the database. But getting removed from it, despite changes enacted in recent years, remains difficult and often requires the intervention of courts.
Individuals can appeal to the law enforcement agency that put them on the list, and if the request is denied or they don’t receive a response, they can petition the court. But Owens said that people often choose not to pursue those avenues because they are costly or time-consuming.
“In a lot of cases, they leave it alone,” he said.
While the debate over CalGang continues, Christopher Sanchez, an advocate for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, points out that names are being added, and for those unfairly on the list, inclusion could mean the risk of an escalated encounter with police.
“Today, if someone was to be placed on CalGang, they are being placed on that flawed system,” said Sanchez. “It gives a reason for law enforcement to go and over-police Black and brown communities.”
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