Rights & Liberties

Bill to Shed Light on California’s Gang Database Moves Forward

Legislation that would open California's gang database to more public scrutiny advanced in the state Assembly on Tuesday, despite significant opposition from law enforcement.

The bill — AB 2298 by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego — aims to provide adults with the right to be notified — and to appeal — if they are included in CalGang, remove people from the database if they go three years without a gang-related conviction and require the California Department of Justice to produce an annual report on the program.

The secretive database currently includes more than 150,000 people — the vast majority of them Latino or black — entered by local law enforcement agencies based on criteria such as tattoos, gang-related clothing or admission of gang involvement to an officer. Adults never know whether they have been documented, yet can face harsher punishment if they are arrested later for a crime.

Weber's effort, which cleared the Assembly Public Safety Committee by a 5-2 vote, would expand on 2013 legislation that provided juveniles and their parents with the right to be notified of and appeal their gang documentation. In her remarks to the committee, Weber talked about the database's impact on black and Latino communities, arguing that the criteria it relies on is overbroad and subjective.

“The whole issue of developing gang lists without people even being notified that they're on a gang list reeks of the McCarthy era,” she said, referencing the anticommunist tactics of US Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

“Gang suppression strategies' employment by law enforcement, including gang databases, have existed in California for over 30 years without consistency or transparency in their application, without meaningful data reporting and without any assessment of their impact on the criminalization of youth and communities of color,” she said.

Sponsors of the bill include the Youth Justice Coalition, Urban Peace Institute, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles and National Immigration Law Center. A raft of law enforcement organizations are opposed, including the California District Attorneys Association, California State Sheriffs' Association, Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association and California Narcotic Officers Association.

The first to speak in favor of the legislation was Aaron Harvey, a San Diego man who faced and beat criminal street gang conspiracy charges in a series of 2014 shootings, stemming from allegations that he was affiliated with the Lincoln Park Bloods. Harvey, who denies he is a gang member, was in Las Vegas at the time and faced criminal charges because gang detectives with the San Diego Police Department previously had recorded him as a gang member.

Harvey introduced himself to the committee as “a real-life example of the destruction that documentation can cause in a person's life,” highlighting his arrest and the eight months he spent in jail while awaiting trial.

“Being documented as a gang member can impact where you can live, what services can be provided to you, where you can travel to, educational opportunities and who you can associate with,” Harvey said. “And remember, you can be documented as a gang member without ever having committed a crime.”

Josh Green, an attorney with the Urban Peace Institute in Los Angeles who has helped youth challenge their inclusion in the database, also testified in support of AB 2298. Green argued that the criteria for being entered into CalGang “is extremely low,” and “in some neighborhoods, those criteria are the day-to-day experience of residents.”

Citing a 2013 ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, he pointed to its finding that “determining whether an individual is an active gang member presents a considerable risk of error.”

Green also said applicants for immigration relief under the federal DREAM Act can be identified as gang-affiliated by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement through CalGang, which immigration authorities regularly access. People who apply for immigration relief and are documented as gang members “might have their (DREAM Act) application denied, but might also be flagged as a high priority for deportation,” he said.

Sean Hoffman, a lobbyist for the California District Attorneys Association, said adult notification would create a cumbersome and burdensome appeals process for law enforcement and would be “like letting suspects view evidence being collected against them before we decide to file charges.”

Hoffman said his organization also had concerns about the three-year expungement requirement, which is shorter than some police departments' own criteria.

Asha Harris, who spoke on behalf of the California State Sheriffs' Association, said the changes would undermine public safety “by informing gang members and their associates they are under investigation.” She said the state sheriffs hadn't opposed the 2013 effort for juvenile notification, but see adult notification as a threat to a valuable investigative tool.

AB 2298 will next go before the Assembly Appropriations Committee. A similar effort to provide adult notification and appeal for gang documentation, SB 829, failed in its second committee hearing last spring.

A state audit already underway is expected to shed light on training of personnel who input individuals into the database, as well as documentation procedures and information sharing among law enforcement agencies.

This post originally appeared at Reveal and is posted here with permission.

About the reporter

Ali Winston

Ali Winston

Ali Winston is an investigative reporter at The New York Times and a former reporting fellow at The Nation Institute.

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