A coalition of New York City advocates and scholars is calling on the city’s police watchdog to audit the notorious gang database that surveils thousands of New Yorkers, almost all of whom are people of color.
On September 22, civil rights advocates, public defenders and professors wrote a letter to the New York Police Department Investigator General Philip Eure, demanding that he investigate the Criminal Group Database—a surveillance apparatus that they say relies “on data collected using … vague, unaccountable, and subjective standards,” which makes it “inherently unreliable, and calls into question its use as an investigative tool.”
The letter highlights numerous areas of concern. For one, the database seems to maintain clear racial bias: Two-thirds of the approximately 18,000 people listed in the system are Black, and about one-third are Latinx. Just 1.5 percent of people in the database are white. Hundreds in the database are minors, some as young as 13 years old.
Additionally, it’s unclear what exactly gets someone placed in database in the first place, since “gangs” and “crews” are vaguely defined—respectively, “a group of persons with a formal or informal structure that includes designated leaders and members, that engage in or are suspected to engage in unlawful conduct” and “a group of people associated or classed together.”
Criteria for inclusion in the database are “overly broad,” the authors write. The opaque process by which New Yorkers are listed deprives individuals of due process. They are further stripped of agency by the “detrimental downstream consequences of inclusion on the list when it comes to criminal prosecution,education, housing, immigration proceedings, and more.”
State and local lawmakers have also urged the NYPD IG to look into the database. In December 2019, 21 politicians wrote a letter expressing concern over the lack of transparency in the data collection practices used to populate the database. These include social media monitoring and mass data mining, and the department’s potential information-sharing practices with immigration authorities, among others.
Recent audits of gang databases elsewhere in the country have yielded troubling findings in other major cities, like Los Angeles and Chicago. Earlier this year, evidence of “significant misuse” of California’s state-wide CalGangs database by the LA Police Department was uncovered, finding the “entry of false information” like classifying individuals without reasonable suspicion, according to a press release from the state Department of Justice.
In 2019, Chicago’s Inspector General found gang database records containing “erroneous” data, like birthdates prior to 1901, or lacking basic information, like a specific listed gang membership or reason for a person’s classification. In some cases, a person’s occupation was listed by Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers as “SCUM BAG,” “BUM,” “CRIMINAL,” “BLACK,” “DORK,” “LOOSER [sic],” or “TURD”—which demonstrated, noted the IG, “how such information systems can be employed to demean and dehumanize members of the public. “
As a result of the audits, changes to the databases have been made, ranging from their reform to their elimination. In February, the CPD announced it would be revamping its database—creating a more unified system with more controls in place to maintain accuracy, and giving listed people the opportunity to appeal their classification. It will also no longer share information with immigration authorities.
In July, California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra blocked law enforcement’s access to CalGang records generated by the LAPD due to their unreliability, while LAPD Chief Michel Moore withdrew his department from the program altogether.
In contrast to Chicago’s approach, New York activists don’t want a fine-tuned database, but rather systemic changes to inequitable social conditions, like the scarcity of affordable housing and work opportunities caused by racial capitalism.
“We know what helps prevent crime,” Althea Stevens, who works with youth at East Side House Settlement in the Bronx, told Gothamist in December 2019. “We know what we really need. We know we need investments in our community. We know that that’s what works. We know that these young people need resources.”