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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Could you be in California’s gang database? Bill would make sure you know

OFF THE WIRE
COMMENT ROBERT

Where are we on this issue now? I know that before you are added, you get a letter and are allowed a chance to appeal in writing within two weeks of getting the letter - even that doesn't mean you will be successful. But for motorcycle club members with no record who are added just because law enforcement lists their club as a gang and took a picture them with their cut on, I suspect additional challenges getting their club and their name removed.
By
Almost 9,000 people in Riverside County are listed as gang members in a database used by law enforcement – and it’s likely that not all of them are aware.
That’s because under current state law, information in the CalGang database is visible only to law enforcement officers, who use it as an investigative tool and intelligence index. Someone does not have to be convicted of a crime, or even contacted by police, to be entered into the system.

That leads critics to see the database as a secretive surveillance system that “obviously has to be reformed” – even as its supporters say it helps police monitor and stop gang activity and “obviously it’s a benefit.”
In an effort to make CalGang more transparent and accurate, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, introduced a bill in March that would require law enforcement agencies to notify people who are added to the list. Currently, adults are not notified, but a 2014 law required that parents of juveniles be told when they’re entered.

Weber’s bill, AB 2298, also includes provisions related to privacy and accuracy, and would make it easier for names to be removed. The bill passed both the state Senate and the Assembly, with support from only Democratic legislators, and is awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.

After the bill was introduced, the California state auditor published a report on the CalGang database, concluding it has “inadequate oversight” and that its data is not collected and maintained “in a manner that preserves individuals’ privacy rights.”

Weber said having one’s name on the list could lead to more serious consequences, such as adding years to sentences of people convicted of non-gang-related crimes. Though CalGang information is not supposed to be used for any purposes unrelated to law enforcement, the auditor’s report found that it was used in some employment screenings and military-related screenings.

Sgt. Adam LeVesque, who works in the Riverside Police Department’s Gang Intelligence Unit, said the purpose of the database is not to collect vast amounts of information on people, but to lead police to crime suspects.

“I think if the public were able to see how we use this information, they would feel more comfortable with us collecting it, and more secure knowing this type of information leads to us taking violent criminals off the street on a routine basis,” LeVesque said.

Weber said in a phone interview that the database, developed in 1997, “needs to be used for the purpose it was designed for.”

“I’m saying that the database obviously has to be reformed, and there has to be some verification of what is used,” she said.

GETTING ON, OFF THE LIST

A person could be listed in the CalGang database as either a gang member or an affiliate – someone “known to associate with active gang members and whom a law enforcement officer reasonably suspects may be involved in criminal activity or enterprise,” according to the state auditor’s report.

The criteria for a name to be added are described in the report as “broad.” If the person doesn’t say during a custody interview that they are in a gang, two other criteria must be met. Those include having gang tattoos, frequenting gang areas, wearing gang dress and being identified as a gang member by an informant – who could be either credible or “untested.”

Current, CalGang policy calls for people’s names to be taken off the list within five years unless their information is updated. But the auditor’s report found several instances in which agencies did not purge names in that time frame, due in part to “inadequate oversight.”

If Weber’s bill becomes law, people will be removed from the database if they have not been convicted of a gang-related crime within three years of being added, and an appeal process will be established.

The bill calls for CalGang and similar databases to comply with federal requirements regarding privacy and accuracy of information, and for law enforcement agencies to submit annual reports on the databases. Those reports will be made public.

WHO’S ON THE LIST

Each California county maintains its own “regional node” of the database and is required to compile demographic reports of gang members in its node.

Through a California Public Records Act request, The Press-Enterprise acquired Riverside County’s demographic report in April, which showed that 8,955 people here were considered gang members.

Data provided by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office showed that more names are being removed from the list than added:

• Between Jan. 1, 2011, and April 5, 2016, 7,739 names were added to the list and 12,487 were removed.

• From Dec. 31, 2015, to April 5, 2016, 307 names were added and 552 were removed.

The Press-Enterprise was denied a request for the last 100 names added to the list and their corresponding ZIP codes.

HOW CALGANG IS USED

California law enforcement officers who are trained to use the database can pull it up on a computer in their patrol cars.

According to a report compiled for the Assembly Committee on Appropriations, “the goal is to improve the effectiveness of the regional law enforcement and criminal justice agencies through the efficient handling and exchange of criminal justice intelligence and investigative information on gangs and gang activity.”

LeVesque, of the Riverside Police Department, said the database is an essential tool in gang-enforcement operations, helping police identify targets in their investigations, vehicles suspects drive or who they associate with.

“It provides the kind of leads that we could follow up on – sometimes within minutes,” he said.

A “classic example” he gave of how the database is used would be if police receive a description of a person at large who was involved in a gang-related crime. Police can search for the database for people with similar descriptions. If the suspect had identifiable tattoos or shouted the name of their gang, police can search those things too.

“By being able to search for members of a gang and look for suspects that match a description, obviously it’s a benefit,” LeVesque said.

On the other hand, Dave Maass, spokesman for Bay Area digital civil liberties nonprofit group Electronic Frontier Foundation, sees the database as a means for police to spy on innocent people.

“CalGang is so strange in that you can get added to it and associated to it and find yourself being pulled over more often, having a harder time with your interactions with police because somebody at some point decided you need to be earmarked,” Maass said.

NOTIFICATION

Lobbyist John Lovell, who represents the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, which opposed Weber’s bill, said the database is well-used by Riverside County sheriff’s deputies.

“It’s a very reliable investigatory tool,” Lovell said. “I would analogize it to a lighthouse; you don’t know how many ships it keeps from hitting the rocks but that’s not a reason to tear the lighthouse down.”

Lovell said notifying people whose names are added to the database could be problematic. Law enforcement may be forced to share “sensitive information” with gang members who appeal, he said; that could endanger informants or expose information about a larger investigation.

While Weber’s bill would require notifying people added to the list, it allows exceptions if doing so would compromise an active investigation.

RESTRUCTURING

The State Auditor’s Office recommended that the California Department of Justice oversee CalGang, providing “an oversight structure that ensures that information is reliable and that users adhere to requirements that protect individuals’ rights.”

Weber, whose suspicions of the database “intensified” after reading the auditor’s report, said she hopes the bill will lead to more accountability. If not, she said, it may be time for CalGang to go.

“If we can’t get the transparency we need, it should be abolished,” Weber said.

LeVesque, however, believes getting rid of CalGang would slow down gang-enforcement operations.

“Without it we are left to knocking on people’s doors, and contacting people who may be too afraid to talk,” LeVesque said.

Contact the writer: 951-368-9284, atadayon@scng.com, @PE_alitadayon