Updated 5:45 p.m.
The Chicago Police Department doesn’t have proper protocols to ensure its so-called gang database is accurate, and yet it shares that information with over 500 other agencies, including immigration, education and criminal justice agencies, according to a report from Chicago’s inspector general. The report, released Thursday, raises serious concerns about the fairness and transparency of CPD’s gang designations.
According to the report, a designation as a gang member can have serious consequences on immigration status and interactions with police and the criminal justice system. These impacts are particularly felt in black and Latino communities, since over 95 percent of people who were identified as gang members during arrests were people of color.
The Chicago Police Department said overall it agreed with the findings of the inspector general that the system must improve, but said maintaining gang information is a “vital part of CPD’s anti-violence efforts.”
Last year, a coalition of organizations and individuals filed a lawsuit against the city alleging the Police Department keeps a database that is arbitrary, discriminatory, over-inclusive and error-ridden. And activists have demanded the complete elimination of the so-called database.
The inspector general found that Chicago does not actually “have a unified, stand-alone ‘gang database.’” Instead, what is publicly known as the “gang database” is actually a collection of “a multitude of internal databases, forms, visualization tools and repositories.” In fact, the department wasn’t even able to give the inspector general a complete list of all the various ways gang information has been recorded.
The department suggested that one way it could solve problems with its collection of gang intelligence tools is to actually create a unified gang database. The department is proposing a “Criminal Enterprise Database,” which would be a single “gang intelligence system.”
Accuracy and transparency
The report raises serious concerns about the quality of information in the police databases and concludes that CPD “cannot confirm that all their gang designations are accurate and up to date.”
CPD does not require staff members to provide any evidence to justify gang designation, and there is no formal review to check the accuracy of a designation. In fact, officers gave no reason for the gang designation in 11.7 percent of cases. The report says since members aren’t required to provide any evidence, it increases the likelihood that designations are “assigned without justification and leaves CPD members vulnerable to accusations of inaccuracy and bias.”
“There are real, important justifications for gathering this information, but it’s not useful if it’s inaccurate, which our report indicates in many instances it maybe be. It’s not useful if it’s overbroad, which clearly it is the case here,” said Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson.
The report said Gang Arrest cards, which are filled out when a person is arrested, were the most reliable source of information, but even that data was suspect. The report found multiple records where a birthdate on these cards would make a person over 117 years old, or as young as 0. The inspector general also identified records where officers listed people’s occupations as “scum bag,” “bum,” “turd,” “criminal” and “black.”
The department doesn’t notify individuals about their gang designation and there is no way for an individual to challenge their designation. The report says the department also has no process for internally purging designations, so designations that were made decades ago remain in the system. The report identified one person who was first designated as a gang member when they were 9 years old and has continued to carry that designation for 19 years.
The report says the “gang database,” and the lack of transparency around it, strain community-police relationships. During public forums, the inspector general reports people said the so-called database was an “excuse for criminalizing people in certain neighborhoods” and a “tool for racial profiling.” During those forums, the report says one person said police were friendly when they pulled them over, but after seeing that they were listed as a gang member (despite not being in a gang), the police pointed their guns at them.
Over 500 agencies are able to access the Chicago Police Department’s gang-related data, but beyond an initial application process, the department doesn’t have any official agreements with agencies about how they can use the data, according to the report.
According to the inspector general’s analysis, the two agencies that most frequently use the gang-related information from the department were the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. The third most frequent user was Chicago Public Schools, which made over 87,000 queries from 2009 to October of 2018. (CPS told the inspector general it does not have access to the gang information system. It is currently unclear why queries are appearing).
Immigration-related agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration, also accessed this information. Since 2009, immigration agencies made over 32,000 inquiries.
In 2017, Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez filed a lawsuit claiming CPD falsely designated him as a gang member. That suit claimed that ICE raided his home “based on false information obtained from the Chicago Police Department.”
“If CPD had not included Mr. Catalan-Ramirez’s name in the Gang Database, Mr. Catalan-Ramirez would not have been targeted and prioritized by ICE in its ‘gang op’ and he would not now be in ICE custody and in deportation proceedings,” according to court documents.
The city of Chicago eventually agreed to correct its records and wrote a letter to immigration officials on Catalan-Ramirez’s behalf. According to a statement from his lawyers, Catalan-Ramirez spent months in an ICE detention center before being released.
Recommendations and response
The inspector general’s report gave 30 different recommendations of how to address the problems identified. The Chicago Police Department agreed with most of the recommendations, including formally auditing how outside agencies use and access the data and mandating supporting evidence for gang designations.
However, the department resisted some recommendations to involve the public in an evaluation of “whether collecting gang information services CPD’s violence reduction efforts.” The department said that could “put certain gang crime strategies or information at risk and negatively impact the public and officer safety.”
One of the key ways the department proposed addressing the recommendations was by creating a new “gang management system” called the Criminal Enterprise Database. In many ways, the new proposal sounds more like a “gang database” than what the department currently maintains. It’s described as “a comprehensive, single gang intelligence system with clear standards for officers to use in determining gang membership or affiliation.”
The proposal for creating a new database was met with skepticism from community groups.
“They’ve settled with replacing one system of racial profiling with a newer more efficient system,” said Todd St. Hill, of Black Youth Project 100, an activist organization.
The department promises the new database will have a process for people to appeal their gang designation. It also promises better protection in how the information is shared with third parties, though the inspector general’s report notes the protections do not apply to information that is already kept by the department.
The department did not provide any timelines for when it will address concerns or make changes.
Shannon Heffernan covers criminal justice for WBEZ. Follow her @shannon_h.