The Chicago Police Department has maintained a patchwork of databases for decades that critics say wrongly funnels large numbers of mostly Black and brown people into the criminal justice system by labeling them gang members without any real verification or checks.
The controversial use of the gang databases has come under fire in recent years, the subject of multiple lawsuits, public hearings and critical reports.
Now, the city is pushing forward with a plan that will allow police to maintain a so-called “gang database” but with major changes made in response to the concerns raised by citizens. The most significant change: the plan creates a path for people to challenge their inclusion on the gang list, a path pushed through city council on Wednesday.
A draft policy, made public on Friday, also includes a rule mandating gang designations be purged after five years absent new confirmation of active gang involvement, restrictions on sharing the information with outside agencies and stricter criteria and oversight for adding someone to the gang database in the first place.
“It is certainly a positive step that gang designations will no longer follow people around for the rest of their lives,” said Sheila Bedi, a Northwestern University Law Professor and director of the Civil Rights and Community Justice clinic.
But Bedi said the new policy still doesn’t provide enough protections because the information will be shared with other law enforcement agencies, who could keep the information forever, and who might share it with organizations involved in immigration enforcement, employment, licensing and housing, something CPD is barred from doing under the new proposed policy.
“The gang database has imposed so much harm on Chicago’s Black and brown communities,” Bedi said. “The gang database makes people subject to deportation, affects their ability to work, affects their ability to access educational services. So it really has life changing consequences.”
In a statement, CPD spokeswoman Margaret Huynh, said the new policy was drafted based on national best practices and in response to community concerns.
“[The] policy was drafted to ensure the constitutional rights of our residents, while also safeguarding the people of Chicago against violence driven by criminal enterprises and street gangs,” Huynh said.
The proposed changes come two years after a scathing report by the Office of the Inspector General, that concluded the department had slapped the gang label on more than 130,000 people — 95% of whom are Black or Latino. The IG found CPD did not purge outdated or faulty designations, and there was no internal mechanism to amend inaccurate gang information.
Under the proposed new policy, individuals who believe they are designated as gang members can confirm that designation with CPD. Those people can then ask the police department to take them off the list and if CPD refuses the person can appeal to the Chicago Police Board.
On Wednesday, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance empowering the city’s police board to handle appeals from people who believe they have been wrongly included in the new gang database, dubbed the Criminal Enterprise Information System.
The ordinance passed 29 to 18 despite criticism from aldermen who said they’ve gotten little information from the police department about how the new system will work.
“This is backwards and the fact that we’re going to fix [the database] later is just bunk. There is no reason why this has to be passed today … [my colleagues] have asked that you hold it while we get some more information,” said Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, ahead of the vote on Wednesday.
The plan, backed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, was delayed last month by two aldermen who opposed it, saying it lacked specifics and transparency. But on Wednesday, the council’s chair of the Committee on Public Safety, Ald. Chris Taliaferro, forced a vote on the measure.
“There is nothing wrong with these two things working in tandem … there’s nothing wrong with having this ordinance approved before this body while having police continue to work on the Criminal Enterprise Information System,” Taliaferro said.
The Police Board, a panel of nine 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.
Board President Ghian Foreman said last month 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.”
Tynetta Hill-Muhammad, organizer for the Chicago chapter of the activict group Black Youth Project 100, said the biggest issue with the new policy is that CPD has still not demonstrated the actual need for a gang database.
“I don’t think that a gang database is going to create any reduction in crime, hurt or harm that occurs in our city,” Hill-Muhammad said.
Instead, she said the gang list just sets up already marginalized people to be harassed and harmed by the criminal justice system.
“As long as the system is in existence, it is fundamentally flawed. It is hyper surveillance of Black and brown people. And it just keeps Black and brown people from living in the world in a free and autonomous way,” Hill-Muhammad said. “You can’t change a pile of manure by putting a bow on it, it’s still fundamentally flawed.”
The police department is asking the public to weigh in on its draft policy before it is finalized. The comment period closes on Nov. 29. Hill-Muhammad said she was worried that by releasing the draft quietly last Friday and having public comment close just a few days after Thanksgiving, the city was trying to avoid meaningful public input on a controversial issue.
Huynh said the department has taken multiple steps to engage the public about the database over the past two years.
Police Superintendent David Brown, meanwhile, has defended the use of gang identification data, calling the information “critically important” for “intelligence-led investigations of gangs.”
Mariah Woelfel covers city government for WBEZ. You can follow her @mariahwoelfel.