The NCSL Blog

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By Anne Teigen

As violent crime by young people has been declining, concern over an apparent rise in gang membership has led states and localities to rely on gang databases.

Police officer using computer keyboard in car.Jurisdictions that use gang databases see them as important crime-fighting tools, while opponents point to serious flaws and raise concerns about the extent of police surveillance. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), violent crime by youth decreased by 54 percent from 2006 to 2015 (the most recent year for data).

However, an analysis of information from the National Youth Gang Survey reported an uptick in the number of gangs, comprised of adults and juveniles, identified around the country and in the annual estimates of the number of gang members from 2003 to 2012.

Gang databases have been used to measure and assess the extent of gang activity in communities.

According to the National Gang Center, 12 states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington—have statutes related to the creation, implementation and functioning of statewide gang databases. Additionally, many municipal police departments around the country have their own databases with information on people suspected of gang involvement.

“The database is a vital tool in keeping the city safe,” New York City Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea told the New York City Council Committee on Public Safety in June. “When violence erupts between two groups, it is vital for us to know who might retaliate and who is likely to be targeted.”

The first computerized gang reporting database was created in 1987 by the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department. A year later, the California Legislature became the first state to enact comprehensive gang legislation called the STEP Act (Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act), which included support to expand Los Angeles’ database statewide. The new database, Cal-gang, enabled police departments throughout California to feed data collected from local law enforcement gang databases into a state repository.

However, opponents of gang databases assert Cal-gang and gang databases, in general, are fraught with serious problems and raise serious concerns about the extent of police surveillance.

“Tracked and Trapped,” a report from the Youth Justice Coalition, notes that the criteria to enter someone into a gang database are overly vague and broad and young people who have not been arrested or accused of any criminal activity have been added into the Cal-gang database.

In some jurisdictions, young people are unaware that they have even been placed on a database—California enacted AB 829 in 2015 that requires police to notify minors who are included in the Cal-gang database.

A young person who is arrested and sent to juvenile court could have difficulty getting diversion, other plea deals or could face harsher penalties such as long sentences because of their alleged gang involvement. Once included in a gang database, many jurisdictions have no process for a person to appeal to be removed from the database, even if they do not belong to a gang.  

Recent research shows that gang databases have disproportionately negative effects on young people in communities of color.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that 70 percent of the people on Chicago’s gang database are black, 25 percent are Latino and less than 5 percent are white. The study also found that 95.3 percent of people added to the gang database before they turned 18 are black or Latino.

Efforts have been underway in California and New York to restore confidence in the usefulness of gang databases. New York City reduced the number of names in its database from 34,000 to 17,441 after a four-year effort to winnow down the database and audit for accuracy. The NYPD also says each entry is double-checked every three years, as well as on the person’s 23rd birthday and once more on the 28th birthday. More details, however, are not available on the NYPD’s website. 

Conversely, Portland, Ore., dumped its database altogether. In 2017, the city purged its gang database tags in an effort to not “flag” people as “criminal gang affiliates.” The police will still be able to “flag” a person if they have past arrests or if they were involved in a shooting.

According to The Oregonian, “The Police Bureau recognizes that the gang designations have led to ‘unintended consequences' and served as lifelong barriers for those who have shunned the gang lifestyle and tried to get jobs.”

Cities and states will continue to debate the usefulness and fairness of gang databases in 2019 and beyond.

Anne Teigen is the program principal for NCSL's Criminal Justice Program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.