Scathing Audit Bolsters Critics' Fears About Secretive State Gang Database
An explosive state audit confirms many of the fears that San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber and others have long expressed about the state’s gang database: that it cannot ensure individuals’ privacy, that people can be entered in the database without proper substantiation and that people are kept in the database long after their names should have been purged.
Beware the gangster babies.
Among the explosive findings included in a new audit of the state gang database, CalGang, auditors say they found “42 individuals in CalGang who were supposedly younger than one year of age at the time of entry—28 of whom were entered for ‘admitting to being gang members.’”
The state Legislature, prompted by San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, requested the audit, which was released Thursday.
The database is a statewide tool that provides law enforcement officers access to data about an individual’s gang ties.
But Weber said that she was troubled when she struggled to find basic details about how the gang database operates. Now the audit has provided some of those answers – and they’re disturbing.
The audit confirms many of the fears that Weber and others have long expressed about the CalGang system: that it cannot ensure individuals’ rights to privacy, that people can be entered in the database without proper substantiation and that people are kept in the database long after their names should have been purged.
“Probably people are pretty shocked about just how deep the problems are in the CalGang system in terms of lack of transparency, lack of consistency in terms of how the standards are used,” Weber said.
Weber herself was not one of them.
“I was not shocked at all. If you don’t live in a community that has had concerns about this … I’ve heard these complaints for years. As most folks know, my own son was threatened to be put on the gang list, and he hadn’t done anything. I hear these things from parents on a regular basis. But I think some of my colleagues were shocked,” she said.
A snapshot of the findings:
• Even with the broad criteria for including someone in CalGang, a check on 100 individuals included in the database found that “law enforcement agencies did not have adequate support for inclusion of 13 of these individuals.”
• “flaws in CalGang’s controls caused many individuals to remain in the system longer than federal regulations allow; in fact, some individuals are currently scheduled to remain in CalGang for hundreds of years.”
• the CalGang leadership structure doesn’t allow for any public input or oversight, and conflicts are rampant. One law enforcement officer, for example, “stated that he enters approximately 95 percent of CalGang records for his agency, yet this same sergeant is also responsible for conducting any audits of CalGang records for the region because he is the node administrator.”
• Though CalGang data is intended to be used only as a law enforcement tool, the audit found “at least three law enforcement agencies may have inappropriately used CalGang as an employment screening tool” – possibly in violation of those individuals’ privacy rights.
Law enforcement officials told auditors no real harm comes to those who end up in the database. In San Diego, we’ve seen that’s not true.
Aaron Harvey’s inclusion in the database landed him in the thick of a case that threatened to send him to jail for life – even though San Diego prosecutors admitted he hadn’t actually committed the crime at hand. Rather, they argued, the Lincoln Park resident benefited from a series of shootings because the real criminals belonged to the same gang as Harvey. Harvey denies he’s in a gang, and says he landed in the database thanks to being stopped by police in his neighborhood dozens of times.
Here’s how I described some of what can land a person in the gang database last year:
According to the state, a person can be entered into the CALGANG database if he or she meets any two criteria from a list that includes: admitting to being a gang member: being arrested alongside known gang members; being ID’d as a gang member by a reliable source; being seen affiliating with documented gang members; displaying hand gestures affiliated with a gang; frequenting gang areas; wearing gang dress; or having gang tattoos.
Harvey’s case was later dismissed.
Critics have for years said the criteria for inclusion in the database is too broad. The report notes: “academic literature suggests that the broad criteria used to label gangs and gang members may make it difficult for youth living in gang‑heavy communities to avoid meeting the qualifying criteria and that gang labeling can stigmatize minority, inner‑city youth, limiting their social and economic opportunities.”
Indeed, the report says that being seen associating with gang members, and wearing “gang dress” are the No. 2 and No. 4 most-used criteria to land someone on the database. In a gang-heavy neighborhood, that could include simply talking to a neighbor and wearing a red shirt.
The No. 1 most-used criteria to land a person in the database, according to the report, is self-admitting to being in a gang. But even this can be problematic: The report notes it found at least one instance of someone being included in the database under this criteria, even though interview notes revealed the man had told officers he was not in a gang.
A bill written by Weber that would mandate that adults be notified when they’re entered into the database passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
A 2013 law requires officials to notify parents of juveniles when their kids land in the database. But the audit found that in many cases, that’s still not happening.
Despite the problems, Weber said she still believes CalGang – if used and monitored properly, can be a good crime-fighting tool.
“This is an important tool in law enforcement,” Weber said. “And this report says that probably the manner in which we’re using it is not very effective in terms of fighting crime.”
As for the audit’s discovery that people younger than 1 year old were entered in the database, that finding was in a section on rampant errors – presumably those people were adults whose ages were entered incorrectly.