Gang databases erode trust in law enforcement

Judge Pamela Alexander MSR file photo

by Sheila Regan

Legislative work group on gang and crime databases hears from citizens

Establishing trust in law enforcement versus maintaining security and safety proved to be the resounding themes at a legislative listening session on gang databases, criminal intelligence data and criminal investigative data.

The listening session was hosted by the SF2725 work group, which is a committee that the 2010 Minnesota Legislature formed to discuss issues and laws related to criminal intelligence databases and to make recommendations on proposed legislative changes.

Two gang databases are the primary focus of the work group: the Criminal Gang Investigative Data System (commonly referred to as the Gang Pointer File) and GangNet.

Like the state-created Gang Pointer File, the privately-run GangNet uses a 10-point criterion to determine if individuals belong in the system. Unlike the state system, GangNet policy has been to enter names if someone meets one of the 10 criteria. The state Gang Pointer File requires three of the 10 criteria.

In January of this year, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office agreed to adopt some changes to their policy of entering names into the GangNet database following meetings with the University of St. Thomas School of Law’s Community Justice Project (CJP). The changes included notifying parents of juveniles when they are entered into GangNet, and reducing the number of years that an individual can stay in the database if they don’t meet any new criteria.

The SF 2725 Workgroup has been meeting since September, taking a look at a number of proposals by members of the group and outside presenters. The group has discussed possible changes to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act that would make it possible for law enforcement agencies to keep information not only private, but secret.

The work group members included various people from different law enforcement agencies, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and representatives from different civil groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.

While a couple of the presenters at the listening session praised the way law enforcement currently uses databases, many citizens who spoke at the meeting said that they felt the databases could sometimes cause more harm then good in that they mislabel people who are not in gangs and prevent youth from changing their lives for the better if they are put on one of the lists early in life.

Judge Pamela Alexander, president of the Council for Crime and Justice, said her biggest concern is about keeping the records confidential and the potential impact on communities of color, especially in regard to their mistrust of the system.

“Overall, the system has treated communities of color poorly,” Alexander said. While she has devoted her career to justice in her work as a judge, she said the system only works if people have faith in it. Witnesses for crimes won’t come forward if they don’t trust the system, she said.

Last year the Council for Crime and Justice worked on a juvenile justice bill, and Alexander said that they found a lack of uniformity in how data was used and how records were kept. “We want more transparency,” she said, “and records need to be audited and purged where appropriate.”

Echoing Judge Alexander’s call for a need for more trust, Jeff Martin from the St. Paul NAACP said that though he understands the need for intelligence gathering, the best law enforcement is true community. “We gotta work on the trust issues,” he said. He said it was important to notify parents if their child is on a gang database. Parental notification has to be part of any new system, he said.

Tina McNamara, from the St. Paul Police, spoke along with Steve Randall and Donnel Gibson from Youth in Transition (YIT), a program in Saint Paul. While McNamara said that GangNet helped find troubled youth to be a part of the program, Randall said that the group, which existed prior to involvement with the police, knew the kids who were in trouble without the use of the database.

GangNet is problematic, according to Randall, because it hinders young people who have had some problems from moving on with their lives. Some officers have a certain attitude about people who are on the list, often treating them “like scum,” according to Randall.

Gibson, who went through the YIT program, said that he used to be homeless but he is not a gang member. “At the end of the day,” he said, “we need programs. A lot of police can’t help — that’s the problem. Kids run from the police.”

Damon Drake from the Guardian Project, who also works with troubled youth, said one problem with gang databases is the misidentification of individuals as being gang members. “I was identified as a gang member, and I’ve never been in a gang in my life,” he said.

Similarly, Melvin Carter from Save Our Sons said that his concern with GangNet is that it “casts too wide a net” that catches “the wrong people.” People who are struggling to change their lives get strangled, he said. The main tool that law enforcement has is trust, he said, and if you don’t have trust, then you just have military occupation, a police state.

Ice Demmings spoke about his experiences with GangNet, saying that he was denied a permit to carry because he was on a gang database. He was also denied acceptance in the National Guard. Chief Michael Goldstein from the work group said that Demmings’ experiences may have related to his criminal history as opposed to his presence on GangNet.

Melissa Hill, an activist and writer for TC Indymedia, said she was concerned about law enforcement gathering information about people at peaceful protests. She said that at a recent protest in support of activists who were raided and subpoenaed for a grand jury, she saw Ramsey County sheriff’s deputies taking pictures. “There is not enough protection of our civil liberties in these cases,” she said.

Thanks to Sheila Regan and the TC Daily Planet for sharing this story with us.