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NYPD's Secret Gang Database Filled With 'Garbage,' Advocates Say

By Noah Hurowitz | October 19, 2017 11:34am
 Vidal Guzman, an organizer with Just Leadership, speaks at a rally condemning the NYPD's use of a database tracking alleged gang membership and affiliation.
Vidal Guzman, an organizer with Just Leadership, speaks at a rally condemning the NYPD's use of a database tracking alleged gang membership and affiliation.
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DNAinfo/Noah Hurowitz

MANHATTAN — A coalition of activists and legal advocates is calling on the NYPD to scrap its database of alleged gang members and people affiliated with gangs, denouncing the secret list as unaccountable and accusing police of using it to target communities of color.

The NYPD maintains a running list tracking gangs in the city in an effort to keep tabs on which gangs exist where and who might be a part of them, according to the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Stephen Davis. The list, part of a larger “electronic case management system,” is used to help investigators figure out when crimes might be gang-related and how to both solve crimes and to prevent further crimes by those groups, Davis said.

Detectives use a series of criteria to identify alleged gang members, including admission of gang membership and gang-related tattoos and insignia, according to Davis and records released to advocates under a previous Freedom of Information Law request. 

But some of the criteria, including wearing so-called gang colors or affiliating with “known” gang members, have come under fire as ensnaring anyone who lives in a certain neighborhood, according to Babe Howell, a law professor at CUNY who has researched the NYPD’s gang identification policies and advocated for their abolishment.

“What goes into a database, I discovered, was not data but garbage. It’s everything a kid does,” Howell said. “A database is only as good as the data that’s in it, and the value of the database is very questionable.” 

According to Howell, the effects of being identified as gang-affiliated are far reaching for the people who end up listed on the NYPD’s database.

In one instance, a 16-year-old who was in court on a summons for misdemeanor harassment was held on $20,000 bail after prosecutors alleged he was a member of the Latin Kings, which the defendant and his lawyer vigorously denied, according to a 2011 paper Howell wrote on the subject.

Brooklyn Defender Services, the Legal Aid Society, and a host of police-reform and immigrants-rights activists groups filed a Freedom of Information Law request Wednesday asking the department to reveal details on how it tracks gang membership, the number of people listed as gang members, and the demographics of the New Yorkers who police have identified as gang-affiliated.

At a rally in front of 1 Police Plaza, the advocates took turns bashing the database for lack of due process and loose criteria casting too wide a net, describing it as a successor to the largely discontinued policy of stop-and-frisk.

“If you’re around the wrong people, you give them a high-five, you’re part of that gang no matter what happens,” said Vidal Guzman, a former gang member and activist with the group Just Leadership. “Before we define their full potential, we lock them up. Police say they want a safer community. They need to work more with our community.”

In a survey conducted by Howell of 64 public and private defense attorneys in more than 40 jurisdictions nationwide, 90 percent said they had seen gang affiliation come up at bail hearings, and 60 percent said they had worked with clients who would have been released without bail if not for allegations by prosecutors of gang affiliation. About two-thirds of those lawyers said they had seen substantially higher bails set due to allegations of gang affiliation.

“When they’re in the community, they get targeted and blamed for everything that happens nearby, and it makes arrests and negative law-enforcement interactions much more likley,” Howell said. “The Eighth Amendment right to reasonable bail goes out the window, and the Fifth Amendment right to due process is essentially nonexistent.”

In an interview with DNAinfo New York last month, the NYPD's Davis defended the database as a necessary tool in fighting and preventing crime, calling it an integral tool for detectives working in communities where crime and violence are believed to arise from gang activity and turf beefs. 

According to Davis, it is in the department’s interest to be keep the database as narrowly focused as possible in order to avoid mucking it up with irrelevant information or uninvolved people.

“Being a member of a gang is not a crime, so when we identify someone as being known to associate with gang members, that’s done more for if we’re doing an investigation so that we know who is a gang member or who we believe to be a gang member,” he explained. “We don’t want to have bad information, because that doesn’t help our investigation.”

At the rally, however, the activists accused the department of putting a spotlight only on communities of color, and using the database — which is not subject to extensive public scrutiny — to help prop up potentially flimsy criminal cases against defendants.

According to the database information released to Howell in 2013, which stretched from 2001 to Aug. 30, 2013, just 1 percent of the 21,537 individuals added during that time were white, while about 90 percent were black or Latino, records show.

The new FOIL request filed Wednesday is seeking demographic information on everyone added to the database from 2009 to the present, along with any records and training materials regarding gang identification.