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Damning Report On NYPD Gang Database Increases Calls To End ‘A Tool Of Mass Criminalization’


Attorneys and advocates for criminal justice reform who have long questioned the validity of the NYPD’s gang database are now calling for the police department to abolish it altogether.

They argue the database is racially discriminatory and harmful to whole communities in the way it catalogues young people, mostly young men and boys, according to overly-broad criteria. They point out that there is little to no transparency in how the NYPD uses the database or shares the information, though affected communities know first-hand of gang raids on a massive scale.

“The gang database is not a crime fighting tool,” said Victor Dempsey, a community organizer with The Legal Aid Society, at a rally outside of City Hall on Thursday. “It is a tool of mass criminalization.”

Perhaps most crucially, Dempsey and other advocates said, the database is ineffective in helping to bring down crime.

“We know what helps prevent crime,” said Althea Stevens, who works with youth at East Side House Settlement in the Bronx. “We know what we really need. We know we need investments in our community. We know that that’s what works. We know that these young people need resources.”

Chicago and Portland, Oregon both eliminated their gang databases due to similar concerns.

This week a group of state lawmakers and City Council members sent a letter to the Inspector General for the NYPD, asking for an investigation of the NYPD’s gang policing tactics.

Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the database on Friday, calling it a “central tool in addressing a real problem.”

“Even though crime has gone down for six years in a row, the levels of violence are profoundly less than they were in recent years and decades, we have to remain vigilant and we have a huge amount of work to do. And one of the central ongoing problems in this city has been gangs and crews,” de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer.

There are approximately 17,500 individuals in the database, known officially as the Criminal Group Database, according to the NYPD. Critics argue that the database is too easy to get on but difficult to defend oneself against.

And there are collateral consequences to being on the database, such as the possibility of being evicted from public housing or a loss of job opportunities.

Prosecutors rely on this information from the police all the time and they use it to request higher bail on their cases,” said Anthony Posada, a supervising attorney at The Legal Aid Society. “They use it to set higher sentences on people. People are being deported as a result of these allegations because a simple allegation of being involved in a gang can land somebody in ICE custody.”

A person can be added to the database without a crime having taken place. A report released Thursday by the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, which examines gang raids under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, outlines some of the reasons the NYPD cites for putting people into the database, including wearing colors associated with gangs, using hand signs associated with gangs or having gang scars or tattoos, among other signs (the report and the NYPD note that at least two of those criteria must be met to get into the database).

The report claims that the criteria, including self-admission of being a gang member, are dubious, and the NYPD’s judgement of these factors is faulty. It calls the NYPD’s entire approach to neighborhood violence and possible gang activity as misguided; instead, the city should embrace more holistic and social-work approaches to breaking down violence, including addressing poverty and past trauma as a root causes of problems.

“I really believe we should invest more in credible messenger work and mentors and peer mentors so that we can actually reach these young people and change their way of thinking,” said Taylonn Murphy, who works as a credible messenger, at a briefing on the report. Murphy’s daughter, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, was killed in West Harlem in 2011 in a rivalry between groups of young people. Murphy’s son was later arrested in a large-scale gang raid in West Harlem.

Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for the NYPD, asserted that the city reconstructed its gang database using stricter criteria, and that it reviews individuals every three years to make sure those individuals still fit the criteria to be flagged. She said that the current size of the database is about half of what it was five years ago, when it included more than 34,000 people.

“Our goal is to make sure that everyone who is in the database is actually a gang member,” Kaye said. “We are in the era of precision policing. Saturating the database with non-gang members limits its usefulness.”

Kaye did not immediately answer questions about how someone could get information on whether they are in the database, and how someone can challenge being included.

On the steps of City Hall, advocates, public defenders and researchers said the NYPD’s gang database was anything but precise. They said the NYPD’s gang policing tactics were reminiscent of how the police department misused stop and frisk: overreaching, racially discriminatory and unnecessary.

They put that label on it,” said Babe Howell, a professor at CUNY School of Law, “They call it ‘gang policing.’ They call it ‘precision policing.’ And everyone applauds.”

Howell, who has been studying gang takedowns for the past decade, published a report earlier this year on the problems with a gang raid and mass indictments in the Bronx known as the “Bronx 120.” Most of the defendants in that sweep were not convicted of any violence; more than a third were not even prosecuted as gang members.

“They criminalize folks who have used every opportunity,” Howell said Thursday, “who have grown up underprivileged and over-policed, and they’re filling our prisons with them. These gang prosecutions are easy to bring, impossible to defend.”

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