Gang Data Base Under Fire, Lawsuit by Activists Claims, Discriminatory, Inaccurate Info

(Tribune) Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the city of Chicago flag, Donta Lucas described some considerable troubles he has faced in his 34 years — growing up in the tough Cabrini-Green public housing development and later being homeless.

But what he was not, Lucas told reporters Tuesday in a halting voice, was a gang member. Yet when he was denied a concealed carry license in 2016 after hoping to land a security job, Lucas discovered for the first time that Chicago police had listed him as a Gangster Disciple.

Lucas is one of four Chicago men who, along with community organizations and activists, filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the city alleging that the Police Department’s massive gang database contains inaccurate, out of date and racially skewed information on thousands of people. At least one of the plaintiffs contended he has been repeatedly stopped and harassed by officers.

The lawsuit alleged the database disproportionately targets blacks and Hispanics, pointing out that they represent about 95 percent of those listed as gang members.

No one on the list, advocates said, is ever notified they are on it or given a chance to appeal, even though the label can cause harm, including heftier bails, harsher court sentences or, in Lucas’ case, a stunted career path.

A coalition calling itself Chicagoans for an End to the Gang Database announced the lawsuit at a City Hall news conference and called for stringent restrictions on how police use the database.

Among the measures sought in the lawsuit would be to limit how individuals are added to the gang database. The coalition wants at least two detectives to be required to explain in a sworn statement what proof beyond a reasonable doubt they possess that the person is a gang member.

They also seek that anyone named to the database be notified and have a way to contest the designation.

In addition, the suit seeks monetary damages for individuals like Lucas.

A front-page article in the Chicago Tribune in April said critics have decried the gang databases used by big-city police departments across the country for years as often inaccurate, outdated and racially skewed.

Other jurisdictions — including the state of California, Providence, R.I., and Portland, Ore. — have already made efforts to reform the use of such gang databases. A lawsuit, however, is an unusual tactic to force an overhaul of the practice.

The 59-page federal lawsuit, which also names Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, argued that the department gathers the gang intelligence in a way that is “arbitrary, discriminatory, over-inclusive, and error-ridden.” The suit alleges that officers are given “unlimited” discretion to add individuals to the database, often falsely labeling people as gang members “based solely on their race and neighborhood.”

Chicago’s current practice allows officers to consider anything from distinctive tattoos or other markings, information from informants or an admission by an individual.

The extent of the database also troubles activists — a staggering 128,000 names, not including likely tens of thousands of juveniles. The Tribune reported that the database listed more than 12,000 purported gang members who were now 50 or older.

Chicago police officials, in a statement to the Tribune for the article in April, pledged reform, saying they planned to update the current database and set up “explicit parameters” to decide how to include people.

A department spokesman said Tuesday that the proposed reforms are moving ahead and that they will be released to the public for comment “in the coming days.”

The spokesman also said that on Tuesday the superintendent called the gathering of gang intelligence “vital” but agreed that it must be accurate and sound.

The approximately 40 activists who gathered Tuesday at City Hall expressed doubt that the department could undertake a reform of the database by itself.

“For two years we have been working, we have been organizing for two years,” said Rosie Carrasco, an organizer with Organized Communities Against Deportation. “We have confidence in the people and the organizations and the work that we are doing.”

When asked about the need to gather intelligence on gang members who drive much of Chicago’s violence, Vanessa del Valle, of the MacArthur Justice Center and who was among the lawyers who filed the suit, said “extensive research” has shown that the gang databases are not a valuable tool for law enforcement.

“They do not help reduce crime,” she said.

Article Org: chicagotribune.com

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