Gotham Gazette

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Why We Should Abolish the NYPD's Gang Database, Not Reform It

Mayor Adams and NYPD officials (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

This week's report from the Office of the Inspector General of the NYPD (OIG), pointed out numerous irregularities in how the NYPD manages their Criminal Group or “gang” Database (CGD). While these irregularities in procedure confirm our concerns that the database is overly broad, racially discriminatory, and arbitrary, the procedural reforms proposed by the OIG fail to address the larger unexamined issues of whether the existence of such a database is good policy. We think it isn’t and instead support City Council bill 360 that calls for the abolition of the gang database.

In 2018 and 2019 the Grassroots Advocates for Neighborhood Groups & Solutions Coalition (GANGS) testified before the City Council about our concerns that the database uses overly vague criteria for including people in the database, lacks oversight, includes juveniles without notifying their parents, refuses to tell people if they were on the database, and offers no mechanisms for disputing inclusion. The new OIG report confirms all of these concerns. 

The fact is that secret databases like this inevitably give rise to shortcuts, arbitrariness, and discrimination. For instance, the OIG found numerous instances in which people were added based on a singular social media report or based on the undocumented allegations or without the required sign off by a supervisor. In addition, entire public housing developments have in essence been labeled a “known gang location” making anyone living there subject to inclusion on the list. 

The OIG report also confirmed earlier reports that 99% of those on the list are non-white. In essence, they have defined “gangs” in such a way that they only include people from non white communities, despite the fact that violence, drug dealing, and other collective criminal behavior occurs in a wide variety of neighborhoods. In addition, there are many juveniles in the database including some who are 11 years old. No effort is made to communicate with their parents or provide these young people with much-needed support. 

While the OIG report documents a variety of procedural failures it starts off with a claim that it couldn’t find any harms related to inclusion on the database, but later admits that it didn’t really look for them because they would be difficult to find methodologically. But this flies in the face of other reports by similar offices that were able to identify concrete harms. The OIG for the Chicago Police Department found misidentifications, harassment, obstacles to immigration, and racial profiling, all of which they argued furthered the historical divide between the community and the police and contributed to inequities, especially in communities of color.

The GANGS Coalition members have already documented concrete harms including the use of gang designations to deny people bail, enhance sentences, deny someone employment with the city, and contribute to differential treatment by police on the street. While the NYPD OIG found that the database plays a role in how street level policing is conducted, it made no effort to assess whether that treatment might involve unwarranted harassment and abuse, which has been found in other cities and which our members report.  

All of this and more has led many to contemplate reforming the database by putting in place more transparency and oversight, but such efforts are both ineffective at getting at the real problem and doomed to failure. 

The NYPD has made it clear that it opposes any meaningful reforms and has a history of obstructing them.The OIG report calls for the notification of parents whose children are on the database as long as it doesn’t compromise an existing investigation. But, when the City Council floated this idea, the NYPD said that it would oppose this because of its belief that everyone on the list meets the definition of being part of an active investigation.

We must also ask what the ultimate purpose of reform would be. Small procedural changes to the database generally serve to reinforce the use of police to manage the problems of youth violence. 

There are alternatives. The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice supports several Cure Violence sites that employ community outreach workers known as “credible messengers” to work in high violence communities to identify and respond to potentially violent situations and work with young people to try to break the cycle of retributive violence as well as help young people develop positive paths forward through educational and vocational supports. In addition, they are ramping up an Advance Peace program based on the successful ones in California that enroll high-risk young people in a variety of services and provide them with income support and financial bonuses for sticking with the program. Research shows that these initiatives work.

But we need to do more. 

Newark’s new Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery is a possible model. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka diverted police funding to create the office, which is using the money to create a holistic community-based response to violence that includes youth programs, outreach teams, intensive trauma counseling, summer jobs, and employment and education support. Violence in Newark is at a 60-year low with significant reductions in homicides and shootings last year. While New York City has some of these programs, they fail to cover many parts of the city and aren’t run cohesively to provide an integrated holistic approach the way that Newark does. 

Abolishing the Gang Database will establish the illegitimacy of the tactic of placing large numbers of young men and boys of color in databases based on the suspicions of police. It will be a step towards shifting our emphasis away from “building cases” to repairing harms. The database is a crude and flawed tool that implicates the innocent and fails to adequately address the needs of those young people who are at risk of violence as either victims or perpetrators. Young people involved in violence have all been victims of violence themselves in ways that were never adequately addressed, leaving them scarred, angry, and often alone. If we want to end the violence we need to lift these young people up before the violence, not lock them up and throw away the key after the violence has already happened.

Victor Dempsey is community organizer for the Legal Defense Fund. Alex S. Vitale is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Both are members of the GANGS Coalition. On Twitter @avitale.

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