Chicago police admission casts doubt on validity of gang database

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Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Celene Adame’s poster at a May Day rally shows pictures of her, her husband Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez, and their children.

Since March, federal officials have been trying to deport to Guatemala an immigrant whom the Chicago police identified as a gang member. This week, the police admitted it cannot verify that Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez actually was a member of any gang.

The admission settles claims Catalan-Ramirez brought against the police as part of a lawsuit he filed against both the police and federal authorities over his arrest and detention. The admission raises questions about the reliability of the police gang database that is often used by law enforcement authorities for a variety of purposes, including deportation proceedings.

Catalan-Ramirez, who has been in the United States for about 10 years working as a mechanic, was injured in a shooting in January. He was at his South Side home recovering in March when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided his home and arrested him. Since then, he has been in immigration custody at McHenry County Jail under deportation proceedings.

An ICE officer confirmed the agency targeted Catalan-Ramirez for arrest and deportation based on Chicago police gang information, according to the lawsuit.

Catalan-Ramirez agreed to drop the Chicago police department as a defendant in return for a letter a police issued Tuesday stating “CPD cannot verify that Mr. Catalan-Ramirez is a gang member” despite his inclusion in the database. The letter will be included in police records to indicate past labels were inaccurate. It also states the department does not object to Catalan-Ramirez’s application for a special visa for crime victims that would allow him to stay in the United States.

A Chicago police spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

“Hopefully with this letter, this will impact his immigration case,” said Irene Romulo of Organized Communities Against Deportations, an activist group that has advocated for Catalan-Ramirez. “The whole basis for him being in detention was incorrect.”

Catalan-Ramirez’s lawsuit will continue over his medical care in custody and his treatment by ICE officers during his arrest.

But the settlement raises anew questions about the Chicago police department’s gang database and the city’s status as a “sanctuary city” that limits contact between local police and federal immigration agents. A lawsuit filed by another immigrant, Luis Pedrote-Salinas, claiming to be arrested by ICE based on false inclusion in the Chicago police gang database, is also pending in federal court.

“This whole process has proven that the gang database is rife with inaccuracies,” said Vanessa del Valle, one of Catalan-Ramirez’s attorneys at Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center.

Arthur Lurigio, a Loyola University Chicago psychology and criminology professor, said gang membership can be identified by police on a range of signs of commitment, from professing membership to tattoos to associating with known gang members. As a result, he said, police are susceptible to false identifications.

“I think you need more than a singular questionable ambiguous criterion to establish gang membership if you want to include someone in a database,” Lurigio said. Ideally, he said, “the police department has specific, measurable, observable criteria for gang membership and the person in question has met X number of criteria to be considered gang member with at least 80 percent or higher likelihood.”

Catalan-Ramirez was first labeled a gang member after police approached him near his home in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in June 2015. Chicago Police Department records obtained by Organized Communities Against Deportations show he was “loitering with another individual in a known Latin Saint street gang/narcotic area” and police listed him as a Latin Saints member.

In November 2016, a different police record shows Catalan-Ramirez was listed as a member of the rival Satan Disciples gang, which also claims territory in that neighborhood. According to his lawsuit, police pulled him over blocks from his home that day for a traffic stop and then entered him into the database as a Satan Disciples member.

“They racially profiled him,” del Valle said. “There was no basis, no evidence to label him a gang member, let alone label him a gang member of two rival gangs.”

The police department’s gang information has in the past been criticized for inaccuracies and a lack of transparency. The latest edition of a book compiled with Chicago police gang information was found to contain suspects who are listed twice, or who are dead. It was also the subject of a lawsuit over inaccuracy.

Del Valle and Organized Communities Against Deportations are calling for a police department review of its database.