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Devastating Consequences of Chicago Gang Database – And No Way to Be Removed

In 2018, the MacArthur Justice Center filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Chicago, former Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, and the city’s police officers, challenging the city’s gang database. The suit was filed on behalf of several community groups and four specifically named plaintiffs who are currently in the database.

This year there’s a plan. As of February 26, the Chicago Police Department (“CPD”) set a plan to revamp the controversial Chicago gang database within the next 12 months.

According to Charlie Beck, interim CPD superintendent, the new system will involve much stricter criteria when adding someone to the database, as well as centralizing the police department’s gang information.

Previously, referrals from any officer — including school resource officers — that someone’s name be added to the database could occur without oversight or vetting. “Thousands of people have been erroneously classified,” according to the complaint.

“Who’s going to believe them that they’re not a gang member if you have this official record saying they’re a gang member? The consequences are devastating, particularly to the immigrant community,” said MacArthur lawyer Vanessa del Valle. “Being labeled as a gang member hurts people in their immigration proceedings. It prevents them from getting basically any type of immigration relief.”

There was no way to remove your name once in the database. A coalition of community groups — including Mijente, Black Youth 100, Beyond Legal Aid, and Organized Communities Against Deportations — spearhead a drive to eliminate the database. Allena Bradley, an organizer with Black Youth 100, said it’s been “an uphill battle, to say the least.” Bradley also pointed out that some people as young as nine years old have been added to the database, apparently relying on unvetted information from a teacher or school resource officer that went to the police department.

Now, an individual must admit to gang membership in the last five years on video. If no video is present, he or she must meet two of six criteria to be added to the database. This includes an unrecorded self-admission; wearing of distinctive gang emblems or tattoos; evidence from a reliable confidential informant within the last two years; the use of distinctive gang signs; being identified as a gang member by another government or penal institution; or being arrested, charged, or convicted of a crime where gang membership is an element of the offense or is documented in the court record.

In an attempt to reduce subjective judgment, the wearing of gang emblems, clothing, or tattoos cannot be used together to admit someone to the database.

In addition to the list of criteria, there will be a “multi-level approval process,” and if someone on the list has not had contact with law enforcement for a period of five years, they will be removed from the database.

Despite plans for reform, many civil rights attorneys and activists are still committed to eradicating the system altogether. There is no assurance of how police officers and supervisors will be trained, which can lead to continued violence due to racial profiling and police brutality, as well as a general strained relationship between the people of Chicago and its police department.

In order to get a better understanding of crime and how to stop it, the police must form a relationship with the people and work together in a manner that is productive and positive.

Carolina Gaete, director of the Blocks Together community group, said police wrongfully arrested her 17-year-old son Tomas “Nico” Gaete because he was in the database.

He was accused of carrying out a gang-related shooting. The case was dismissed, and he was released after spending a week in jail.

“I fought so hard for him to stay out of jail, and then he gets accused of something he didn’t do because of racist tools that police use,” said Carolina Gaete. “If this is happening to Nico, I’m sure this is happening all over the city.”

According to the suit, of the more than 128,000 adults listed in the database, 95 percent are Black or Latinx. Access to data on those younger than 18 was not available, according to del Valle.

A 2016 report by a Chicago city task force on police accountability and a 2017 Department of Justice report document racism among Chicago police officers. “Racism and maltreatment at the hands of the police have been consistent complaints from communities of color for decades. Regardless of the demographic, people of color loudly expressed their outrage about how they are treated by the police,” said the 2016 report.

For instance, around three-quarters of the people shot by police from 2008 to 2015 were Black, including 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke, as McDonald was walking away.

“There’s so much harm in labeling someone a gang member,” said del Valle. “You’re ruining people’s lives.” 


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