Task force eliminates use of gang database because of complaints it contains too many minorities

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ALEXANDRIA, VA – A Virginia gang task force serving agencies in 12 jurisdictions across the Washington, D.C., region has dropped the use of a popular database that catalogs alleged gang members after activists complained that minorities are disproportionately represented.

The Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force has discontinued the use of GangNet, a real-time database designed to track gang members and activities, according to a report in The Washington Post.  Despite law enforcement officials saying the system is an effective gang-fighting tool, the decision to discontinue the use of GangNet was made after police reform advocates claimed the system promoted racial profiling.

Police reform advocates also claim the system is unfair because people entered into the database are never told they have been labeled as a gang member, and never have a chance to challenge their entry into the database.

Kofi Annan, executive director of the police reform group Activated People, said he is concerned GangNet unfairly lists minorities. He cited HIDTA statistics which found that nearly 80 percent of the people entered were black or Latino. Annan said he is also concerned about the lack of notice to persons entered into the database:

“The use of a database where they track suspected gang members is not inherently a problem. The problem is really the procedures and lack of transparency about how people get in there and the lack of an option to dispute whether or not they should be in there.”

GangNet is used by over 120 law enforcement agencies in Maryland, Virginia, and DC. The database contains nearly 7,800 alleged gang members, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA). HIDTA has operated GangNet for about ten years.

The system is used to provide law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies with timely data on gang operations and potential gang members in a given region. Agencies place information on suspected gang members into the database to track activity and share information with other agencies.

A person cannot be placed into GangNet unless they meet certain criteria, such as being identified as a gang member by a reliable source, having been arrested or a known associate of a gang, displaying gang tattoos, or admitting to being a gang member.

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The information contained in the database is for intelligence only and cannot be used as probable cause to make an arrest. Any person entered into the system who has had no criminal activity for five years is purged from the database.

Annan said the database creates concerns about racial profiling, but the executive director of HIDTA disagreed. Tom Carr said most gangs in the area recruit members from minority communities, and that jails and prisons, which have larger minority populations, skew the results.

Prisoners represent the largest group entered into GangNet. Jails and prisons use GangNet to screen incoming inmates to prevent placing rival gang members together.

Tom Carr said the database is often used to solve gang-related cases. He said he does not agree with the task force dropping GangNet:

“The whole purpose of the system is to identify all the different gangs and their members operating in the area. It is merely a pointer system.

“It could really hamstring investigations and jeopardize officers’ safety by not being able to know you are dealing with an identified gang member.”

Carr insisted that law enforcement does take steps to ensure GangNet entries are appropriate, saying, “We are very cautious about entering people in the gang database.”

Disproportionate minority representation is not the only concern expressed about GangNet. Some activists have expressed concerns about privacy issues and the accuracy of the database.

Opponents of the database point out that people have no way of knowing they have been added to the system, and that there is no way to request removal from the system if you are incorrectly entered as a gang member.

Del. Kaye Kory (D-Falls Church) has introduced a bill into the state legislature of Virginia that would require law enforcement to notify individuals placed in a gang database.  House Bill 2226 would require agencies to provide written notice to a person, or a minor’s parent or guardian, that they have been entered into a gang database, and must explain how they can contest the determination.

The bill establishes a process that allows a person to contest the determination that he or she is a member of a criminal street gang, request information about whether their information has been entered into the databases or other systems, request removal of the information from the databases or other systems and petition a general district court for review of an agency’s decision to enter his or her information into the databases or other systems.

The bill is presently awaiting a vote in the Public Safety Committee before moving to the House for a full vote.

The Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force was originally comprised of 16 jurisdictions, however, there were 12 members as of January 11. The city of Alexandria and the City of Falls Church withdrew because of budget issues, and the towns of Dumfries and Warrenton withdrew for undisclosed reasons.

Presently, the task force members include Arlington County, the City of Fairfax, Fairfax County, Fauquier County, the Town of Herndon, the Town of Leesburg, Loudoun County, Manassas City, Manassas Park, Prince William County, the Town of Vienna, and the Virginia State Police.

 

 

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