Flawed datasets have labeled more than 130,000 people as gang members. Soon they might be able to challenge it.

A building has a written sign in the window
The shuttered and locked up J&J Meats has a "No Gang Loitering, Police Order" sign set up behind the cage over the windows at 79th Street and Escanaba Avenue in Chicago on Aug. 13, 2021. Mark Black / Associated Press
A building has a written sign in the window
The shuttered and locked up J&J Meats has a "No Gang Loitering, Police Order" sign set up behind the cage over the windows at 79th Street and Escanaba Avenue in Chicago on Aug. 13, 2021. Mark Black / Associated Press

Flawed datasets have labeled more than 130,000 people as gang members. Soon they might be able to challenge it.

Two Chicago aldermen have delayed a proposal to create an appeals process for people whom police have designated as gang members because they say the plan lacks specifics and transparency.

A Lightfoot-backed ordinance that was up for a vote Thursday got pushed back by two aldermen who opposed it: Alds. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward and Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward. The proposal would empower the city’s Police Board to develop the appeals process before aldermen have seen key details on a new gang-tracking database dubbed the Criminal Enterprise Information System.

The system, still under development, would replace flawed datasets that have slapped the gang label on more than 130,000 people — 95% of whom are Black or Latino, according to a city inspector general’s report that also found there was no process for individuals to challenge gang designations.

The proposal to create an appeals process is a small slice of a long-promised overhaul of the Chicago Police Department’s gang tracking.

But some aldermen contend they don’t have enough information about the new system to decide which city agency should handle appeals.

“It feels like people are putting the cart before the horse, and we haven’t even seen what the horse looks like,” Vasquez said at a Public Safety Committee meeting Wednesday.

“Being asked to vote on something when people have no idea what this process is going to be, what budgetary implications there are, what staffing and capacity implications there are — and we haven’t even seen what the CEIS looks like — it’s not only extremely puzzling, it’s concerning,” he said.

Police Board leaders at Wednesday’s meeting said they don’t know what criteria CPD is planning to use for labeling people as gang members. They said they also don’t know how many individuals the new system would include or whether police would routinely notify people they had designated as gang members.

Board President Ghian Foreman said he does not yet know whether his panel, which has just two full-time employees, would have enough staffing to handle the appeals process. Foreman said that will depend on how many names will be transferred from the Police Department’s old datasets to the new system. He said it might be as many as 20,000 or as few as 5,000.

“We don’t have a way of knowing today, without [knowing] what the criteria are … or what the process would look like,” he said. “Will it be a drought or a flood? We don’t have a way of knowing at this point.”

The mayor’s proposed ordinance leaves it to the Police Board to promulgate rules for the appeals at an unspecified future date. The earliest it could be heard now is at the next full City Council meeting, which is on Oct. 25.

The Police Board, a panel whose nine members are civilians appointed by the mayor, makes decisions on the most serious officer discipline cases and on appeals by police applicants disqualified due to a background check.

With just the two employees — an executive director and administrative assistant — it’s possible the board would need more staffing or have to rely on another entity to review the appeals from people who want to be removed from the new database of gang members. In officer discipline cases, the board relies on reports from the city’s Law Department, led by the corporation counsel, who answers to the mayor.

At an annual CPD budget hearing last week, Police Supt. David Brown defended the use of gang identification data, calling that information “critically important” for “intelligence-led investigations of gangs.” He said developing the appeals process, starting with City Council approval, is a crucial step to improving it.

“Then we can set up locations across the city where you can get that answer whether [you are on the database] and start that appeal process to get off,” Brown said.

In 2019, the IG’s office reported on the gang data, finding that CPD was tracking suspected gang members through at least 18 different forms and systems. The IG found that CPD had no mechanism for informing individuals that they had been designated as a gang member, no processes for individuals to challenge gang designations, no periodic reviews or purges of outdated or faulty designations, and no internal mechanism to amend inaccurate gang information.

In a follow-up report this March, the IG’s office found that the department had made little progress on implementing more than two dozen IG recommendations. Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety Deborah Witzburg has complained that CPD still lacks any periodic purging of the data for outdated and faulty designations. The department, the follow-up report said, also still lacks mechanisms to amend inaccurate information.

In response to the March report, a letter from Brown promised that the CEIS would be “fully developed by September” and that “training for vetting and inputting information” would begin in September as well.

Police officials in recent months have said information from old datasets would be vetted through new criteria including recorded admissions of gang affiliation, gang tattoos, evidence from informants, and identification by other government agencies. The officials have also promised periodic auditing and purging of outdated information.

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government for WBEZ. Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow them at @MariahWoelfel and @ChipMitchell1.