Community groups protest delayed Cook County vote to restrict gang database

For years Cook County police agencies have kept a "gang database," but little has been known about who gets included and why; in several cases, residents were included without any evidence to support the label.. Community groups are now demanding that the police halt the practice and make public who and why names were included.

(Update: The article has been updated. The Sheriff’s Office has stopped using its controversial gang database, officials told The Sun-Times)

Community groups and advocates gathered Thursday to protest the cancellation of a Cook County board of commissioners vote on whether to restrict the sheriff’s use of a gang database.

The gang books have become a source of contention among lawyers and activists who contend the contents have wrongly included too many residents of color who have no gang affiliations. A group of residents and community groups filed a class-action lawsuit last year against the city and police superintendent alleging the police department gang database is discriminatory and error-ridden.

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Commissioner Stanley Moore, the chair of the county board public safety committee, cancelled the vote on Tuesday.

The press conference was organized by a coalition of community-based organizations and concerned individuals, including members of Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, The Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Organized Communities Against Deportations, PASO- West Suburban Action Project, and Enclance Chicago.

In December, then-Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia requested an audit of the gang database by the Cook County Inspector General.

Commissioner Alma Anaya later introduced an ordinance that would halt any more names being added to the database until this audit was completed. The bill also would have prevented the Sheriff’s Office from sharing database information with outside parties, and mandate that individuals be alerted if they were included in the database.

Candidates in the upcoming Chicago mayoral contest, including Cook County Democratic President Toni Preckwinkle, proposed abolishing the database as part of their campaign platforms.

Protesters believe that in addition to halting further use of the data, there is a need for greater transparency as the database is examined.

It remains unclear how individuals end up in the local gang databases, but press conference organizers and legal experts denounce the arbitrary factors of which they have heard, such as appearance, location of residence, and tattoos, as proper ways for law enforcement to determine gang affiliation.

“One of the reasons that we’re all here today is because of the lack of transparency around this database,” says Sheila Bedi, associate clinical professor of law at the Pritzker Northwestern School of Law and attorney at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center.

“The gang designations that are included in these databases are used during court proceedings, they’re used to deny bail, they’re used for other considerations during that process… so they absolutely are a major contributor to mass incarceration.”

Bedi explained that despite plans to decommission the database, advocates for its abolition still have unanswered questions on what decommissioning would actually mean.

Because many people are added to the database without their knowledge, the extent of the harm is not evident. Organizers at the press conference urged their commissioners to recognize the harm the database has caused in their own communities and in the community trust of police, and urged them to quickly reschedule the vote.

A report released by a University of Illinois at Chicago research group found that more than 128,000 residents were included in the Citizen and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting (CLEAR) database that houses gang information for the Chicago Police Department. Of those listed, the report states, about 75% were Black and 20% Latino. The Chicago Police Department uses those measures to determine “hotspots” that may be more prone to violent crime and gang-related activity.

The Cook County sheriff’s office has it’s own database that houses 25,000 people, according to a report released by ProPublica Illinois in 2018.

Maria Hernandez, a community organizer and resident of Chicago’s west side, explained that through her work in the community, she has witnessed first-hand the implications the gang database has had for people of color.

“I’m hearing that among other things this gang database is destroying families, destroying lives, educations, careers …. I’m seeing people losing their kids because they have to got back into a prison system because of racial profiling,” said Hernandez. She urged all commissioners, especially those overseeing predominately Black and Latino areas, to take more of a vested interest in the abolition of the database.

Isaias Ramirez, a Hispanic immigrant, described at the press conference how he was unjustly added to this gang database, one he considers “part of a machine of discrimination against communities of color in this country.”

“Thinking about myself being added, it makes me even more worried that it can be used as a weapon against me and against my immigrant community,” says Ramirez.

In 2017, Injustice Watch covered the case of Wilmer Catalan Ramirez, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who sued the City of Chicago for adding him to the database on unsupported claims that he was affiliated with two rival gangs.

The police department later admitted that the gang ties could not be verified and the City settled Ramirez’s suit.

The broader pending lawsuit over the city database states: “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.”