Chicago police gang database is error-prone, discriminatory, lawsuit says

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Antonio Gutierrez, of Organized Communities Against Deportations, speaks at a news conference in City Hall about a lawsuit over the Chicago police gang database.

Four Illinois residents and six Chicago community organizations have sued the city and police superintendent Eddie Johnson, challenging the police department’s controversial gang database as discriminatory and error-ridden.

The class-action lawsuit, filed Tuesday by four residents who accuse Chicago police officers of falsely naming them in the database, alleges that arbitrary methods such as race or neighborhood are used by the police department to add suspects to its database of 128,000 adult gang members. Tens of thousands more juveniles are also in the database, the lawsuit states.

Donta Lucas, one plaintiff, said at a press conference Tuesday morning that though he never participated in gang activities, he was denied a concealed carry license, for which he had applied in the hopes of working as a security guard and one day becoming a parole officer.

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“That’s when I found out I was labeled a gang member by CPD and I don’t know why,” he said.

Other residents contend in the lawsuit that being falsely labeled as gang members has led to consequences such as being denied the chance to be released after arrest without home confinement, increased police stops, and being unable to get immigration relief. The six community and advocacy groups listed say their members are likely to be falsely labeled gang members in their own neighborhoods.

“Placement in the Chicago Police Department’s gang database destroys lives,” said Vanessa del Valle of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, who represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Del Valle also said at the press conference that the gang database does little to improve public safety.

Chicago police spokesman Frank Giancamilli and representatives from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The department last year admitted it could not verify Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez had gang ties when the City of Chicago settled a lawsuit over his inclusion on the list. Catalan-Ramirez, a Guatemalan immigrant, contended he had been falsely labeled a gang member based on areas where he had been pulled over or stopped by police. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents subsequently raided his home while he was recovering from a shooting, arrested him, and put him in deportation proceedings. He was released after 10 months in immigration detention.

As part of the settlement, the city agreed to update the database indicating its past records about Catalan-Ramirez were inaccurate, and to allow him to apply for a visa for crime victims. The new lawsuit contends that Chicago Police Department policy offers no way for those listed in the database to petition to change their status or to remove their names.

“The CPD knows that its Gang Database contains many errors, but it relies on the information for its own policing purposes, continues to share the information with third-parties, and has taken no action to verify the accuracy of the Gang Database,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit contends the police department uses racially discriminatory practices to label residents gang members, such as matching someone a police officer encounters on the street to the gang controlling that block or neighborhood.

The database, which plaintiffs say is larger than the entire State of California’s gang database, is about 75 percent black residents and more than 20 percent Latino residents, according to a report published last year by a University of Illinois at Chicago research group.

At the press conference, members of plaintiff organizations Organized Communities Against Deportations, Black Youth Project 100, and Brighton Park Neighborhood Council said the database encourages racial profiling and violates the right to due process because those listed on the database are not notified of their inclusion and have no way to challenge it. The information, they said, is then shared with other law enforcement agencies, immigration officers, and police in schools.

The lawsuit seeks a court order limiting the police department’s use of the database, including stricter criteria for including a person on the list, the opportunity for those included to be notified and to challenge their status, and a prohibition on sharing the database with other agencies.