Advocates fear Cook County sheriff kept alive discussions of gang database; sheriff says fears baseless

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Echoing concerns of advocates, a Cook County Commissioner is questioning whether the Cook County Sheriff’s office kept discussing continued use of a regional database of suspected gang members even as  as the sheriff’s office was announcing its intention to halt use of the controversial database.

The concerns arose after a Cook County board of commissioners meeting last week, at which email exchanges between the sheriff and other law enforcement agencies were made public.

“I didn’t know that was happening and I was working with them,” Commissioner Alma Anaya, who introduced the proposed ordinance last December to decommission the database, said in an interview of the email exchanges.

No one from the sheriff’s office had attended the board hearing. But Cara Smith, chief policy officer for the sheriff’s office, told Injustice Watch that  concerns that the office was misleading or deceitful about its intention to halt use of the database have no factual basis.

“We would strenuously and forcefully deny that there’s been a lack of transparency,” said Smith. “To conclude that there is something disingenuous is completely unbased.”

At issue are exchanges between the sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies about gaining access to the data, which the Chicago Inspector General, in a review that is ongoing, reported in April to be inaccurate, error-prone, and damaging police-community relations.

Smith said that while other agencies inquired about taking the database over, they abandoned the idea after learning about the “magnitude of responsibility” hosting the database would involve.

The concerns were raised in a report issued by University of Illinois-Chicago assistant sociology professor Andy Clarno who led a research group that analyzed documents obtained by ProPublica Illinois and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Smith said the office elected not to testify at the hearing because of the ongoing audit. “We’re not going to testify at a public hearing when there’s an ongoing investigation with the Inspector General,” she said. But she added the sheriff informed the commissioners he would not attend, and said he has been closely working with commissioners.

Anaya said the correspondence contradicts the impression offered by the sheriff’s office that there was  “no interest or little interest” by other agencies in the regional gang database.  The correspondence, she said, “showed something different.”

The county board unanimously approved the ordinance in February to ensure the permanent destruction of the regional gang database, which had been hosted by the Cook County sheriff since 2013; prohibit the sheriff’s office from sharing gang designations in the future, and to require public hearings about the gang database and its impact.