by Kevin Bliss
The New York Police Department (“NYPD”) expanded its gang database to include more than 42,000 New Yorkers during a time when gang-related activity is at an all-time low in the city. Placement is secretive with little-known criteria, yet repercussions for being listed are severe and far-reaching. The database also has been criticized for targeting people of colorand curtailing defendants’ due process protections.
Keith Shenery, a 21-year-old black Harlem resident, was arrested on April 21, 2017, for possession of a small amount of marijuana, a charge for which one year later the District Attorney’s Office would no longer prosecute. Shenery also had a folding pocketknife in his possession, another charge that is often dismissed because of the controversial nature of the law and its effect on the working class. Yet, because Shenery was listed in the NYPD gang database, the weapons charge was enhanced to a felony, and bond was set at $10,000. As of this writing, Shenery has been in the county jail for two years fighting this case and his seemingly arbitrary listing in the gang database.
Shenery filed a Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”) request concerning his listing in the database. The NYPD denied his request the same day it was filed, claiming it could not provide him with the information without revealing “non-routine” investigative techniques. Shenery then filed suit against the NYPD for failing to comply with the FOIL request. The Legal Aid Society assisted Shenery and appointed Anthony Posada to represent him in his suit against the NYPD and Jane White to represent him in his criminal case.
Josmar Trujillo, a writer, community organizer, and opponent of NYPD’s gang-policing practices, stated that the database is an unchecked and discriminatory practice, an example of the department operating with little transparency.
NYPD Chief Dermot Shea claims that oversight mechanisms have been instituted to ensure a person’s entry into the database is “backed up by evidence.” Yet when the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund asked for these oversight mechanisms through a public records request, the NYPD officer charged with responding stated that none could be located.
Shea said at a city council meeting that individuals could be added to the database if they admitted affiliation with a gang or are identified by two independent and reliable sources. Another method of being added to the list is to meet two criteria on a wide-ranging list, including association with gang members, tattoos, gang signs, and the wearing of certain colors.
Inclusion can automatically trigger case enhancements, such as potential investigative steps, an increase in charge severity, setting higher bail, and sentencing recommendations.
Posada said, “We’re seeing people being criminalized, found guilty by association, in court where you’re supposed to be presumed innocent until you’re proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. What is happening is a practice by which assistant district attorneys are relying on the gang database to label people and prejudice their cases.”
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