Committee votes end use of controversial Cook County gang database

(Update: Cook County Board of Commissioners voted on Thursday to codify the ordinance into law and officially end use of the controversial database. In April, the city’s inspector general released a report confirming the database is inaccurate, error-prone, and damaging to police-community relations.)

A Cook County committee Wednesday took a step to decommission a controversial database kept by the Cook County sheriff of gang members after repeated complaints that it was found to be error-prone and discriminatory.

The Cook County Board of Commissioners criminal justice committee passed unanimously a resolution to decertify the database, a move that followed an intense effort by community organizers to push for the vote. After the meeting, Commissioner Brandon Johnson, vice-chairman of the criminal justice committee, said the unanimous vote makes it almost certain the ordinance will pass at the general meeting Thursday, which would immediately halt the addition of new information. Officials said the ordinance would not necessarily require the immediate erasure of the information already entered.

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A month ago, the vote had been abruptly cancelled following concerns by the Cook County sheriff over the language. Following that delay, community members who favored the dismantling of the database visited 10 of the 17 county commissions to pressure them to support passage of the bill.

Johnson said of the delay that it had been important to perfect the language laying out public hearings that will occur in the next several months that will give community groups the chance “to lead the conversation around how this type of data creates harm and continues to criminalize people.”

The Sheriff’s Office has said it stopped using the database last month. But sponsors of the ordinance hoped that passing the ordinance will push the Chicago Police Department, which has a parallel larger database of suspected gang members, to halt its use and sharing the information with other law enforcement agencies.

“Although we know that the Cook County database has been deactivated and it’s put in a vault somewhere we want to understand more about what that harm is and how people have been negatively impacted,” said Rey Wences from Organized Communities Against Deportation.

Wences was part of a press conference to press for the vote, and to push for similar action by Chicago officials. “The Chicago Police Department is a flawed department that has been compliant in a lot of human rights violations,” explained Wences.

The call by organizers to create transparency on past use and plans to decommission the database is following claims that the Sheriff’s Office has purposefully kept residents in the dark, a claim Tom Dart’s office has rejected.

Johnson said the Sheriff’s Office had initial concern about the language of the ordinance.  “It took them a minute to get there but that’s the art of democracy and negotiations,” he said.

Bilaal Evans, a leader with the Southwest Organizing Project, said that even after 10 years of community organizing and building, his name remains in the database for a mistake he made when he was 16-years-old. As a result, Evans says, he still faces increased scrutiny by law enforcement.

Organizers say Evans shows being identified as a gang member can follow you the rest of your life, a fact exacerbated by the absence of a standard process for getting the designation removed.

“Instead of promoting public safety and creating community connection, the county database instead invests in the criminalization of our youth and people of color,” said William Oh, a youth organizer with the HANA Center.

Oh believes the ultimate responsibility for undoing the harm the database has caused falls on the commissioners. “It’s the responsibility of Cook County commissioners to once and for all safeguard and protect these rights to make sure in the future [the gang database] cannot be recommissioned by another sheriff,” said Oh.

Johnson believes the ordinance was a step in the right direction to increasing public trust and police-community relations while also giving a voice to those affected by police brutality, systemic racism, and a racially-biased criminal justice system.

If passed Thursday, the ordinance would be effective immediately and no further information will be added. But data already collected in the regional database will not be erased until 2024.