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No due process. No appeal. No notification. No crime done.
Tens of thousands of people, mostly Black and Latinx, are documented in law enforcement databases across the country classifying them as gang-affiliated.
Last month, The Wichita Beacon reported on Wichita’s confidential Master Gang List, a police database fiercely contested by civil rights groups that say it violates the constitutional rights of those listed. A lawsuit against the city is ongoing.
Critics of gang lists across the country are not faulting actions to minimize gang-related crime or involvement. Worries stem from the consequences of having an entire community stigmatized by a label that can’t be erased, according to Kristin Henning, director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic & Initiative at Georgetown Law.
She said routine behaviors in Black and Latinx young people are twisted into evidence of gang membership.
“Having friends and deciding that you all want to dress alike. Hand signals or gestures are things that many kids across the country, Black, white, blue or green, do regardless of whether they are gang-affiliated,” Henning said.
Criminality doesn’t singularly define any gang database
Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a Boston-based youth advocacy group, released a report in April 2021 criticizing a Massachusetts police department for its gang list.
We are the Prey examines the policing of young people in New Bedford, including how the police identify gang members. The report says police subjectively include people on the list using a point system.
“Police just tend to throw this label — gang member — around really haphazardly,” said Kofi Annan, founder of The Activated People, a Virginia-based nonprofit dedicated to fighting for racial and gender equity.
“The more you look into it, the more you realize that it’s a really subjective term that’s not regulated,” he said.
No written policy exists for New Bedford police determining an appeal or removal process, how people are identified as gang-involved or whether individuals are notified after their inclusion on the gang list.
California’s statewide gang database, CalGang, is inaccessible to the public. That’s more than 88,000 secret records.
Similar to Wichita’s database, CalGang allows law enforcement to use information such as the clothing a person is wearing to be identified as a gang member. A 2016 audit found the state’s gang database lacked oversight and included records for children as young as 1 year old.
“We surveil (Black and Latinx youth), label them and collect them so we can exclude and ostracize them,” Henning said.
|No single definition of what a “gang” is exists. The National Gang Center recognizes that state and local jurisdictions develop their own definitions. However, the center does offer these criteria commonly used for gang classifications: a group with three or more members generally aged 12-24members sharing an identity, often linked to a name or other symbols a group with “some permanence and a degree of organization” members viewing themselves as a gang and recognized by others as one a group participating in criminal activity|
Henning said that by abiding by the parameters above, nearly every college fraternity or sorority, sports fan club or police department fits the National Gang Center’s definition of a gang.
“But what we’re talking about when we talk about gangs in America is Black and brown kids,” Henning said, highlighting the racial discrepancy in gang designation.
“What most people kind of understand as an inherently racist system of how policing is done is you end up with a lot of Black and brown people labeled gang members,” Annan said. “There’s no checks or balances.”
Some police departments step back from gang lists
In September 2017, police in Portland, Ore., decided to eliminate its gang database, acknowledging that being labeled a gang member can negatively impact a person “who may be making attempts to overcome the life challenges they face.”
“Today, new processes and technologies allow police to investigate crimes in a manner that our community supports and that will not have the unintended consequences of potentially harming those who may need services and help the most,” the agency said in a news release.
The Wichita Beacon asked Portland police to discuss its decision to end the gang list, but the agency declined.
In June 2020, the Los Angeles Police Department suspended its use of CalGang, announcing a moratorium on new entries amid pushes for police reform.
In the Sunflower State, the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police and the Kansas Peace Officers Association declined to comment on the existence of gang lists and efforts to reform them.