Skip to main content

Gang Databases Are a Life Sentence for Black and Latino Communities

Ending up on a gang database if you're brown or black is easy—you only have to be suspected of association. Getting off a gang database? That's much harder.
Members of the Chicago Police Department, pictured here in July of 2017.

Members of the Chicago Police Department, pictured here in July of 2017.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez's home on the southwest side of Chicago just weeks after the father of three was shot and left partially paralyzed while leaving a restaurant. During the raid, agents slammed him to the floor and cuffed his hands behind his back, aggravating the injuries that he had suffered to his head and shoulder.

ICE didn't have a warrant for Catalan-Ramirez, but instead targeted him because the Chicago Police Department had identified him as a gang member in its citywide database. After Catalan-Ramirez sued, the Chicago Police Department admitted in a letter to the immigration judge overseeing his deportation case that they didn't have much evidence to link Catalan-Ramirez to a gang. And yet, despite a growing outcry that is demanding law enforcement agencies re-examine how they use gang databases, the Chicago Police Department hasn't offered to take on the policies and practices that unfairly landed Catalan-Ramirez on their list.

While many in law enforcement hail gang databases as a policing breakthrough, civil rights lawyers have attacked these programs since their conception. Weariness over these programs has only grown since the Trump administration began stepping up efforts to deport gang members. Reformers argue these databases function like black boxes and demand more information be made public about how someone gets on—or off—these lists. The lists' opaqueness, they say, make them a prime tool for racial profiling. From what limited information advocates have been able to gather, a familiar pattern has emerged around the country: Black and Latino communities constitute a disproportionate number of individuals on gang lists.

Unlike criminal registries, individuals can be listed on Chicago's gang database simply by suspicion or association, rather than only after they've committed a gang-related crime. Vanessa del Valle, one of Catalan-Ramirez's lawyers, traces his gang designation back to two encounters he had with the Chicago Police Department. In June of 2015, he and a friend were hanging out in the (mostly Latino) Back of the Yards neighborhood, when they were approached by police and questioned. The officers eventually went on their way, but they still tagged Catalan-Ramirez in the city's policing database as a member of the gang that controlled the block where they'd just questioned him. The officers didn't bother telling him that he was added to the database, leaving Catalan-Ramirez without an opportunity to dispute his labeling as a gang member.

Then, in November of 2016, he was arrested for driving on a suspended license. That happened on a different block in the neighborhood. The arresting officers entered him as a member of the gang that controlled the block where he happened to have been arrested. That meant the Chicago Police Department had tagged Catalan-Ramirez in their system as a member of two rival gangs.

Both the expansiveness and secretive nature of these databases means that communities of color must live in fear, says del Valle, an attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law. "There are no protections, you are entered into this database, you're not told, and then that information is kept and shared with federal authorities," she says, "and while you can get your arrest record expunged, you can't get your gang record expunged. Once it's in there, it's in there forever."

After the city admitted it had erred in Catalan-Ramirez's case, he was eventually released from ICE's custody. But the fight over Chicago's gang designation program is only just beginning. Community organizers are lobbying their aldermen in an attempt to get more oversight of the program. And activists in Chicago are far from alone. Earlier this month, a coalition in New York City launched the "FOIL Yourself" campaign, referring to the state's Freedom of Information law. The idea is to get a critical mass of New Yorkers to file requests for information on whether they've been added to the list and whom their inclusion has been shared with. Like in Chicago, they hope to raise awareness of the database and force local elected officials to provide more supervision of the program.

Anthony Posada, supervising attorney of the New York-based Legal Aid Society's community justice unit, says that, given the secrecy of gang databases, community outreach and education is key.

"We need to have this conversation, especially in light of the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has said they're keeping track of suspected gang members using social media. We need to be very careful and keep the public informed as to how this all is coming together," Posada says.

Marne Lenox of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund has also signed on to a letter calling for New York City Council hearings into the usage of gang databases. Lenox says she has seen how the effects of being labeled a gang member pervade the justice system.

Supporters of Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez's release stage a demonstration on June 27th, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois.

Supporters of Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez's release stage a demonstration on June 27th, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois.

Both the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Center for Constitutional Rights have filed Freedom of Information Act requests asking the New York Police Department to outline, among other things, how exactly they define the terms "gang" and "crew," as well as whether there is any mechanism for challenging one's inclusion in the database.

"We see nationally [that] police focus in on you as a suspect more than they might otherwise," Lenox says. "And once you are arrested, this affects you in court. Prosecutors can use it against you during plea bargaining and in bail negotiations. And if you go to trial, they can use inclusion on a gang database to paint you as a violent criminal. In some jurisdictions, you are even subjected to longer sentences."

Criminal justice reformers have scored some recent victories in this area. In September, California passed a bill to bring more accountability to its statewide CalGang database. The legislation stiffens the criteria for adding someone to the list and calls for regular audits to ensure the database is accurate and being properly used. That bill came in the wake of a scathing state audit of the program that found that black and Latino residents were disproportionately targeted for inclusion. The most egregious revelation highlighted in the state auditor's report was 42 incidents where people under the age of one were added to the list. In 28 of those 42 cases, police claimed the baby had admitted to being a gang member.

The passage of the California bill also opened up a route for people to challenge their inclusion in the database. The law now reads that if five years pass and there's no proof that someone is connected with a gang, their name should be struck from the list. But it's unclear how easy that process will be to navigate. Tyrone Simmons, an African-American man living in San Diego is currently suing the San Diego Police Department to have his name cleared. His is the only second case of its kind to be heard in California.

Last year, Portland became the first city to abolish its gang list entirely. A 2016 analysis in the Oregonian found that, of the 359 people flagged in Portland's database, 81 percent were people of color. African Americans made up just 7.5 percent of the city's population, yet comprised 64 percent of the gang list. Meanwhile, left off the list was Jeremy Christian, a known white supremacist, who went on to kill two men who tried to stop him from attacking a pair of women who appeared to be Muslim.

City officials concluded that any benefits from the database were outweighed by the hostility the program engendered in the city's black and Latino communities, where residents suspected the police were sharing the list not only with ICE, but also with employers and landlords.

"At the end of the day, gang databases are inaccurate, unconstitutional, and prone to have a disparate impact on black and brown communities," says Legal Aid Society's Posada. But reform is still slow and scattered, leaving communities of color across the country in fear of a threat they can hardly see coming.