State Auditor Finds Serious Problem with California Gang Database

Protesters in West Sacramento this April
Protesters in West Sacramento this April

For years, we have questioned the California Gang Datadase, known as CalGang, in terms of the lack of oversight as to who gets entered into the database and when they get removed.  That belief is now backed up by an auditor report that came out on Thursday that “concludes that CalGang’s current oversight structure does not ensure that law enforcement agencies (user agencies) collect and maintain criminal intelligence in a manner that preserves individuals’ privacy rights.”

The report finds that the CalGang Executive Board and the California Gang Node Advisory Committee (CalGang’s governance) oversee CalGang and “function independently from the State and without transparency or meaningful opportunities for public input.”

The database is used by more 6000 law enforcement officers in all 58 counties in California.

Among the key findings:

  • A weak leadership structure and lack of clear standards or criteria, resulting in a failure to ensure that information entered into the database on alleged gang members and gang-related activity is accurate;
  • Failure to substantiate the validity of CalGang entries, leading to unjustified accusations that can impact employment opportunities and otherwise violate privacy rights;
  • Failure to ensure that CalGang records are added, removed, and shared in ways that maintain accuracy and safeguard individuals’ rights;
  • Failure to properly notify juveniles that they had been added to the database, effectively taking away the right of juveniles and their parents to contest the gang designations. Los Angeles and Santa Ana, for example, “failed to provide proper notification for more than 70 percent of the 129 juvenile records we reviewed”; and
  • Failure to adhere to federal regulations for protecting criminal intelligence information.

The report cites several instances of egregious violations of due process and privacy rights. “For example,” the audit reveals, “we found 42 individuals in CalGang who were supposedly younger than one year of age at the time of entry—28 of whom were entered for ‘admitting to being gang members.’”

According to the report, “A lack of adequate oversight likely contributed to the numerous instances we found in which the four user agencies we examined— the Los Angeles Police Department (Los Angeles), the Santa Ana Police Department (Santa Ana), the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office (Santa Clara), and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office (Sonoma)—could not substantiate CalGang entries they had made.”

They continue, “Specifically, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, and Sonoma, which add gangs to the system, were able to demonstrate that only one of the nine gangs we reviewed met the requirements of CalGang  policy before entry…”

In one example, “Sonoma included a person in CalGang for allegedly admitting during his booking into county jail that he was a gang member and for being ‘arrested for an offense consistent with gang activity.’ However, the supporting files revealed that this person stated during his booking interview that he was not a member of a gang and that he preferred to be housed in the general jail population. Further, his arrest was for resisting arrest, an offense that has no apparent connection to gang activity.”

These findings confirm what many have long believed about a system that lacks oversight and accountability.

The report continues, “According to CalGang policy, information in the system itself should not be the basis of expert opinion or statement of fact in official reports, nor should it be used for any purposes unrelated to law enforcement, such as employment screenings. However, we found that these prohibitions are not always followed. In fact, our search of California appellate cases that included the terms CalGang or gang database uncovered at least four unpublished cases that referred to CalGang as support for expert opinions that individuals were or were not gang members. Further, three law enforcement agencies that responded to our statewide survey admitted to using CalGang for employment or military‑related screenings. These instances emphasize that inclusion in CalGang has the potential to seriously affect an individual’s life; therefore, each entry must be accurate and appropriate.”

“Today’s state audit confirms what communities have known for years—that CalGang is an ineffective tool full of inaccuracies that results in violations of people’s rights,” said Peter Bibring, director of police practices of the ACLU of California in a statement. “The poor oversight, errors and inconsistent standards have a real impact on people’s lives when law enforcement relies on such a flawed system for judgments about prosecutions, employment and even deportation.”

The audit reemphasizes the need for comprehensive legislative reform of gang-related databases and enforcement. “Mislabeling people as gang members not only amounts to profiling, but also functions as a form of stigma that imposes severe livelihood consequences, such as being unable to obtain employment or immigration relief,” said Chauncee Smith, legislative advocate at the ACLU of California Center for Advocacy & Policy. “This harm all too often disproportionately impacts poor people of color.”

Several remedies are laid out in AB 2298, introduced by Assembly Member Shirley N. Weber (D-San Diego). It would, among other things, extend to adults the current requirement that juveniles under 18 receive notice as well as an opportunity to contest inclusion in the CalGang database, and require that data on the numbers and demographics of people included in gang databases be annually reported.

As Aaron Harvey testified this spring, “you can be documented as a gang member without ever having committed a crime.”

“The whole issue of developing gang lists without people even being notified that they’re on a gang list reeks of the McCarthy era,” said Assemblymember Weber.  “Gang suppression strategies’ employment by law enforcement, including gang databases, have existed in California for over 30 years without consistency or transparency in their application, without meaningful data reporting and without any assessment of their impact on the criminalization of youth and communities of color.”

According to the ACLU, “As the audit makes clear, AB 2298, while critical to addressing the serious privacy and fairness concerns connected with the CalGang database, is only the beginning of what must be a complete overhaul of the CalGang system if we are to ensure Californians’ rights are protected. The ACLU of California urges the governor and the state legislature to take this audit seriously, adopt and fully implement AB 2298, and take steps to address the oversight, transparency and other concerns identified by the state auditor.”

Recommendations from the State Auditor include:

  • Designate Justice as the state agency responsible for administering and overseeing CalGang or any equivalent statewide shared gang database.
  • Require that CalGang or any equivalent statewide shared gang database adhere to federal regulations and relevant safeguards from the state guidelines.
  • Specify that Justice’s oversight responsibilities include developing and implementing standardized periodic training as well as conducting—or hiring an external entity to conduct— periodic audits of CalGang or any equivalent statewide shared gang database.
  • Adopting requirements for entering and reviewing gang designations.
  • Specifying how user agencies will operate any statewide shared gang database, including requiring the agencies to implement supervisory review procedures and regular record reviews.
  • Standardizing practices for user agencies to adhere to the State’s juvenile notification requirements, including guidelines for documenting and communicating the bases for juveniles’ gang designations.
  • To ensure transparency, the Legislature should require Justice to publish an annual report with key shared gang database statistics—such as the number of individuals added to and removed from the database—and summary results from periodic audits conducted by Justice or an external entity. Further, the Legislature should require Justice to invite and assess public comments following the report’s release. Subsequent annual reports should summarize any public comments Justice received and actions it took in response.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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