On the NYPD Gang Database: Decriminalize the Neighborhood

On June 13th, the New York City Council’s Committee on Public Safety held a public hearing on the New York Police Department’s gang policing tactics — an issue that hits close to home for Rockaway. The committee, chaired by Councilman Donovan Richards, called the NYPD to testify on the department’s controversial gang database, which has been heavily criticized by community advocates across the boroughs.

The hearing focused particularly on the need for more transparency and the racial disparities within the data. The database is a digital registry of individuals determined to be gang members by the NYPD, part of what the NYPD terms “precision policing”. Just before the hearing, several community advocacy groups gathered outside City Hall to rally in solidarity against the gang database (including Rockaway Youth Task Force, Black Youth Project 100 NYC, Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes, The Legal Aid Society, Vocal-NY, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund and others).

As with similar databases in other jurisdictions (for example California, Portland, Chicago), the NYPD’s database has been criticized by legal advocates and community representatives for racial profiling, civil liberties violations, and lack of transparency. Only NYPD officers are able to access the database, and the department routinely denies requests for data from the public. Individuals who are added to the database are not notified (and neither are the parents of minors in the database). There is no process for someone in the database to get their record removed.

The NYPD’s criteria for being added to the database include wearing gang colors, communicating with suspected gang members on social media, and standing on gang-affiliated street corners. Notably, evidence of criminality is not on the list of criteria. These dangerously ambiguous standards for assessing who fits the label “gangster” forces community members from the areas most affected to ask, “Am I in the database?” Currently, the complete lack of transparency surrounding the data means that there is no way to know. When Councilman Richards asked if it was possible that he could be added to the database just for wearing a certain shirt and hanging out on a certain corner in his neighborhood, NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea conceded,  “It is possible.”

The combination of complete discretion over who ends up in the database and total lack of transparency about those decisions reminds many community advocates of another controversial NYPD policy: “Stop and Frisk”, which was declared unconstitutional 5 years ago. The two policies also share a similar pattern of overwhelming racial bias; according to NYPD testimony from the hearing, the database is currently “65% black, 24% white Hispanic, and 10% black Hispanic,” for a total of “95% people of color”. The NYPD justified the disparity at the hearing by arguing that this breakdown mirrors NYC statistics for violent crime and gun crime; however, no statistics were presented on the relationship between organized crime and violent crime, or on the NYPD definition of “gang-affiliated crime”.

nypd stock.jpg

NYPD's Gang Database: By the Numbers

17,441 names listed

65% black, 24% white hispanic, 10% black hispanic

1,505 youth (under 18)

500 groups identified as "gangs" are represented

Further, CUNY law professor Babe Howell, who was granted rare access to the data through a public records request, discovered that the size of the database increased by 70% since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, and that 99% of those added have been people of color. Though the NYPD testified at the hearing that the database contained 17,441 records as of that morning, Howell reports that the database included over 42,000 names as of February 2018. Per the NYPD’s own testimony, youth under the age of 18 currently make up 1,505 of those names.

Being labeled a gang member may not be officially treated as an automatic indication of criminality within the NYPD, but many advocates argue that the label can lead to enhanced sentencing and higher bail amounts, affect immigration standings, influence housing access, justify increased surveillance and social media monitoring. The “gang member label” can have many more legal ramifications for individuals than the simple “information-only” use of the database that the NYPD presents.

Shea admitted that officers routinely share information about individuals’ status in the gang database with prosecutors when it is “deemed relevant” to the case. However, there is no formal protocol for deciding when the “gang member” label is relevant to the crime committed and when it is not, and no oversight process for when the information is shared or how it affects the prosecution. Several legal advocacy groups have heavily criticized this apparently arbitrary enforcement (as well as other dimensions of the policy) for violating due process.

There is currently no way to know or assess how accurate the database is, how many names are in the database erroneously, how good the NYPD is at updating the database to reflect life changes, or how comprehensively it actually covers NY organized crime (especially given the overwhelming racial disparity). Further, when pressed for statistics about the efficacy of the database for suppressing crime — such as the conviction rates on the number of arrests credited to the database’s influence — Shea was unable to provide any hard data. What we do know is that between 2013 and 2017, the NYPD reported that the aggregate crime committed either on behalf of a gang or by alleged gang members made up only 1.7% of all reported crime in New York City.

Functionally, the gang database criminalizes being adjacent to crime. When people can be added to the database just by living where gangs operate or  by growing up around gang members, entire neighborhoods can be labeled guilty by association. The NYPD’s military-style “gang takedownraids are evidence of that. It remains unclear how the database suppresses crime, but across the boroughs, communities have made clear how it negatively affects their lives, opportunities, and sense of safety. Multiple city council members expressed the possibility of using the database as a way to provide social services and counseling to people (and particularly youth), rather than further criminalizing them. Looking around the room of dedicated community advocates, service providers and advocates who showed out in resistance to the gang database, it was not hard to think of ways the NYPD’s resources could be better spent.