According to the California Department of Justice, you are eligible for inclusion on CalGang, a statewide database of gang members and gang associates, if you meet two or more of the following criteria:
1. You have admitted to being a gang member.
2. You have been arrested for offenses consistent with gang activity.
3. You have been identified as a gang member by a reliable informant.
4. You have been seen associating with documented gang members.
5. You have been seen displaying gang symbols and/or hand signs.
6. You have been seen frequenting gang areas.
7. You have been seen wearing gang dress.
8. You are known to have gang tattoos.
Law enforcement officials argue that the CalGang database is an important investigative tool. But criminal justice advocates are quick to point out that CalGang’s criteria are dangerously broad, making it nearly impossible for individuals who live in certain neighborhoods to escape gang affiliation in the eyes of the law.
They’re right. The criteria are so sweeping that they could easily include someone it would be absurd to classify as a gang member.
Someone like me.
Yes, technically I could be considered a gang associate. Me, Molly Miller, a journalist with an MFA who spends her free time doing jigsaw puzzles and watching cooking shows on Netflix. A woman who genuinely enjoys chamomile tea and Trader Joe’s candies like “ginger chews.” A lady who nearly cried when her succulent died – who knew you could kill a plant with water?
I meet the criteria because I live in an apartment building on a street that is a well-known territory of a specific LA gang. As a result, I both frequent gang areas and occasionally associate with documented gang members. We’re not dealing drugs or trading firearms; they’re my neighbors. We exchange polite pleasantries, chat about the weather and complain when the washing machine is broken.
Despite meeting the criteria, I’m not on CalGang – a fact I know for certain because the state is required to send a letter of notification to those who are added. There are a multitude of reasons why I’m not on that list, but I think I know one of them: I’m a white woman. I didn’t mention that before, but I think it was strongly implied by my earlier description.
It’s not exactly groundbreaking to call CalGang racist. The data is there. According to the California Department of Justice, more than 90% of the nearly 90,000 people on the database in 2018 were men of color. The net of “gang criteria” is being cast all over the state of California; it’s a net so broad that it could include people like me, but somehow it’s sweeping up almost exclusively black and brown men.
We have to face the facts: something is wrong with the net.
CalGang’s racial inequities can be traced to those who collect the data: the officers that fill out field identification cards and enter gang members and gang associates into the system. That doesn’t mean that these cops are racist; it means they have too much discretion when it comes to determining who is included in the database. The law itself holds the door wide open for racial profiling to infiltrate the system.
In the first candidate debate for LA District Attorney, progressives George Gascón and Rachel Rossi both decried CalGang as a racially discriminatory database.
GASCÓN: THE DATABASE TO BEGIN WITH IS A DATABASE THAT’S BASED ON INFORMATION THAT HAS BECOME RACIST, RIGHT? SO WE BEGIN WITH GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT…IT TARGETS YOUNG PEOPLE JUST SIMPLY BY ASSOCIATION. SO VERY YOUNG KIDS THAT ARE RAISED IN THE NEIGHBORHOODS WHERE THERE MAY BE GANG ACTIVITY, THEY IMMEDIATELY GET A SCARLET LETTER, THEY GET TAGGED AS A GANG ASSOCIATE, AND THEN THAT IS USED AGAINST THEM EVEN IF THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT THEY’RE INVOLVED IN GANG ACTIVITY.
Rachel Rossi agreed with Gascón, specifically pointing to the shockingly young age of most LA gang members.
ROSSI: THE AVERAGE AGE OF A GANG MEMBER IN LA COUNTY IS 15 YEARS OLD. WHO ARE WE CALLING GANG MEMBERS? WHO ARE WE LABELING AS GANG MEMBERS? WHO ARE WE PLACING INTO THESE GANG DATABASES BECAUSE OF WHAT THEY’RE WEARING, BECAUSE OF WHO THEY ARE HANGING OUT WITH, BECAUSE OF WHO THEY ARE RELATED TO? WE HAVE TO LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE WE ARE RELYING ON WHEN WE ARE CALLING SOMEONE A GANG MEMBER.
While the progressive political discourse is taking aim at CalGang, it’s worth articulating precisely why police view CalGang as a critical investigative tool.
The database is meant to be an aid in gang enforcement operations, helping police identify targets as well as their known vehicles, associates, and visible tattoos. Law enforcement can look up the database on a computer in their patrol car, and follow up on leads within minutes. Information and rapid response are critical when it comes to gang related violence such as drive-by shootings, fatal stabbings and brutal sexual abuse. In neighborhoods constantly threatened by gang violence, the database can be seen as an essential tool because witnesses are reluctant to come forward out of fear of retaliation.
However, the need for information to prevent criminal activity does not excuse an ineffective system. CalGang is not a targeted sting like Operation Mean Streets (which Michele McPhee wrote about here). That operation was orchestrated by Boston’s North Shore Gang Task Force to combat MS-13 and effectively dismantled the gang’s stronghold in the Boston area. CalGang lacks oversight, intelligence, and sophisticated collaboration. Currently the broad nature of the database ropes in far more individuals than necessary. That makes the data less potent and disintegrates trust between officers and the communities they serve. For many young men, inclusion on the database is not simply a label: it has profound negative consequences for their well-being.
In the most obvious sense, being on CalGang subjects an individual to more police scrutiny. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego, whose adult son was stopped by police and told that he would be entered into CalGang, voiced her concerns to Reveal News about how the database affects the psyche of young men of color. “Putting people on lists intimidates individuals and communities…[it] has a chilling effect on young men who may have never even thought of being a member of a gang.” State sanctioned labels can have a huge effect on how young men label themselves – potentially codifying a bleak narrative that seems inescapable. An NBC News article cited Sean Garcia-Leys, an attorney with the Urban Peace Institute in Los Angeles who believes that teenagers that are marginally involved with a gang tend to identify more with the group after interactions with the police. “When they are treated like gang members, these young men have this attitude… ‘Well, if that’s how you’re going to treat me, I guess that’s who I am.’”
Inclusion on CalGang can also have long-term repercussions. In a letter to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the ACLU expressed concern about CalGang “influencing decisions such as whether to grant bail or adjust an individual’s immigration status.” Designation as a gang member can also result in sentencing enhancements if an individual is convicted of a crime. California’s Street Terrorism and Prevention Act or “STEP Act” adds 2, 3, or 4 years to an underlying sentence for gang members convicted of non-serious felonies, 5 additional years for serious felonies, and an extra 10 years to violent felonies.
To summarize, CalGang is a dangerously broad database that has become a tool of mass racial discrimination, contributing to the revolving door of punitive “justice” that plagues the black and brown men of California.
And that’s when it’s working properly. That’s best-case scenario.
Unfortunately, CalGang has a history of hosting faulty data. A scathing audit in 2016 revealed that the database was riddled with errors. Auditors found the names of 42 individuals who were infants at the time they were entered into CalGang. Of those babies, 28 were recorded as “self-admitted gang members.” In addition, the database contained more than 600 people who should have been removed from the system because their files hadn’t been updated for five years. The auditors also examined juvenile records and found that of the sample they inspected, 70% had been added without notifying the minor’s parents, a requirement mandated by a 2014 state law. As a result of the audit, then governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 90, which sought to increase accuracy, fairness and transparency in the collection of gang-related information.
Despite state efforts to improve the database, recent events prove that the integrity of CalGang is still a pressing issue. Just this month, the LA Times reported that more than a dozen Los Angeles officers are being investigated on “suspicion of falsifying information gathered during stops and wrongly portraying people as gang members or associates.” The erroneous information was allegedly recorded in an effort to bolster stop statistics.
As George Gascón said during the debate, this is a “garbage in, garbage out” situation. The system itself has a history of poor data management and there’s evidence that the data itself may be corrupted. Right now, CalGang deserves our political scrutiny. We cannot tolerate a database that risks mislabeling men of color as gang members simply because they live in the wrong neighborhood, have the wrong friends, wear the wrong clothes, or are related to the wrong people. These men might not do jigsaw puzzles or drink chamomile tea but many of them are just as innocent as me.