California Attorney General Xavier Becerra recently announced that the state Department of Justice is opening an investigation into the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of the controversial CalGang database.

“Residents suspected of being involved with gangs are inputted into the database, which is overseen by the state Department of Justice. The database allows police departments across the state to share intelligence in efforts to identify street gangs and investigate crimes.

While the state DOJ releases annual reports and statistics regarding the database, only law enforcement officials can access the names and information of those logged into CalGang site. The database has come under increased scrutiny, as some people have been misidentified as gang members, but anyone entered into the CalGang system is notified via mail.

Recently, the LAPD has been accused of misuse of the CalGang system, fabricating information from field interviews and falsely identifying people as gang members. The LAPD is currently investigating 20 of its own officers in connection with the allegations.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore is seeking to fire one of those officers, the Los Angeles Times has reported.

“Any falsification of police records and abuse of CalGang database is unacceptable,” Becerra said during a press conference earlier this month. “As I said earlier, if Californians are falsely included in the database, that could potentially lead to them being subjected to unwarranted scrutiny by our law enforcement agencies.”

Care Required

According to the Attorney General’s report on CalGang for 2019, between Nov. 1, 2018 and Oct. 31, 2019 there were a total of 78,096 people in the CalGang database, with 6,575 names added since the last report released in 2018. The overall number of entries has decreased since the last count in 2018, which recorded 88,670 people.

The LAPD is the top contributor to the database, accounting for 24 percent of total records with 19,249, and about 26 percent of new entries with 1,693. The next closest is the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, with 12,316 total entries and 730 new entries.

In comparison, the Pasadena Police Department only has 70 total entries and 15 new entries. The Altadena Sheriff’s Station has only 28 and no new entries. 

Other communities such as Alhambra, Arcadia, Burbank, Glendale, Monrovia, Monterey Park, San Gabriel and South Pasadena recorded a total of 510 entries.

“These systems do allow agencies to talk to one another, which is a benefit,” said Pasadena Police Chief John Perez. “There is a lot of care that has to go into it.”

In order for a police officer to input someone into the CalGang database, the subjects need to fulfill two or more criteria. These criteria are listed by the Office of the Attorney General:

a. Subject has admitted to being a gang member

b. Subject has been arrested for offenses consistent with gang activity

c. Subject has been identified as a gang member by a reliable informant/source

d. Subject associates with documented gang members

e. Subject has been seen displaying gang symbols and/or hand signs

f. Subject has been seen frequenting gang areas. (Must document specific location)

g. Subject has been seen wearing gang dress

h. Subject has gang tattoos

“Law enforcement’s designation of who is or is not a gang member is totally subjective and usually based on discriminatory views about, who quote-unquote, looks like a gang member,” said Melanie P. Ochoa, staff attorney for Criminal Justice and Police Practices at the ACLU of Southern California. “They rely on things that are really indistinguishable from someone being a young person in a community where there is maybe a gang presence.”

Subjective and Implicit Bias

Ochoa believes that many of these criteria are very subjective, which could designate people as gang members based upon their looks, friends and location.

She references the story published in the Los Angeles Times in which a man named Brian Allen was designated as a gang member for frequenting gang areas and picking up a friend who had gang ties.

Ochoa also uses the criterion of “subject has been seen wearing gang dress” as an example of subjective policing. She said that not everyone wearing a Dodgers hat is associated with the Crips or other gangs. It only fits when police deem someone as a gang member.

“It’s a kind of confirmation bias in a way,” said Ochoa. “They have these criteria that are subjective and allow them to confirm that designation based on things that are totally innocuous.”

Every police officer receives training from the state in order to correctly enter people into the database.

“We trained our patrol officers [and] our neighborhood policing officers that focus on gangs,” said Perez. “They receive regular training from the state on how to enter people into the database to ensure we do it appropriately and properly.”

In addition to the state training, PPD also tries to avoid racial profiling by placing their officers in implicit bias training.

“In the last couple of years we have provided implicit bias training for our officers in different forms,” said Perez. “It’s part of the professional development curriculum.”

Perez also hopes to work with community members to create a curriculum in order to educate Pasadena police officers about the culture of the city.

Perez says that he has seen a reduction in gang membership along with fewer people actively broadcasting their membership in gangs.

“If you are in gangs you’re a lot more careful about how you dress, the tattoos, how you act and what you admit to the police,” said Perez. “The [trend of] throwing signs is a ‘80s, ‘90s and maybe a 2000s type of activity by gang members. We see a lot less of that now. People don’t sit on corners and throw out gang signs.”

However, Ochoa believes correlation does not mean causation.

“I wouldn’t take the police at face value when they make that claim,” she said. “They’ve claimed that about a lot of programs. Then when we’ve seen actual audits of those programs, they’re not functioning as they should.”

The controversial Stop and Frisk policy implemented by the New York Police Department was touted as a program that reduced crime across the city. The program disproportionately affected people of color, specifically young African-American and Latino men. While young black and brown men accounted for 5 percent of the population they accounted for 38 percent of all stops. Crime did fall during this period, but it continued to fall even while the policy was abandoned.

According to civil rights attorney Connie Rice, CalGangs is a program that would best be abolished by police.

“Tighter criteria, audits and investigations are good ideas but they do not fix the damage from the perpetual roundups, stops and physical showdowns that result from CalGang, fuel the prison pipeline and violate 4th Amendment protection guarantees,” Rice wrote in a op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times. “A policy that doesn’t reduce gang violence but feeds the prison pipeline doesn’t need mending. It needs ending.”

Crossed off the List

In order to be removed from the list, one needs to ask for removal by law enforcement, petition a court to be removed or be “auto-purged” from the database. According to the California DOJ, the “auto-purge” occurs after a five–year retention period for both juveniles and adults. If there is no additional gang criteria added to one’s record, then they will be removed from the list. On July 1, the juvenile retention period will be reduced to three years.

In the most recent report, CalGang auto-purged 18,548 people from the list, 13 people were removed by law enforcement and three won their petitions. In Pasadena, 57 people were auto-purged and no one asked for removal or petitioned the court to have their names removed.

While Perez still believes that organized crime and gang-related incidents are still an issue, he is leery of over-policing the community.

“We don’t want to overstretch our consent of the community and how we police by conducting way too many traffic stops or pedestrian stops in an area,” said Perez. “Overpolicing is always a concern we should all have.”

Pasadena Weekly is looking for anyone that has been placed in the CalGang database. If you or anyone you know has any information, please call (626) 360-1683 or (626) 584-8746.