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Advocates suspicious of NYPD's gang database standards

The New York Daily News - 6/13/2018

June 13--Gang colors can leave a permanent stain, community watchdogs say, thanks to an NYPD database.

Victor Dempsey, 32, a community organizer with the Legal Aid Society, used to run with the Bloods. Back in 2003, when he was 17, he did a stretch in prison for attempted robbery.

Then he turned his life around.

But last November, he got pulled over in East New York, Brooklyn, for a traffic infraction and found out he's still in the NYPD's gang database -- but identified as a Crip.

Dempsey filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the NYPD and asked for information about the database -- and how he would go about getting removed from it. He has yet to hear back.

In 2001, the log contained only about 6,000 names, according to CUNY law Prof. Babe Howell, who filed a public records request for the stats. By 2009, it had grown to 21,537 names. Nearly a decade later, as of February, there were 42,334 people in the database. The number of names has jumped 70% under Mayor de Blasio, the professor said.

Howell said the Police Department draws a distinction between crimes committed on behalf of gangs and crimes committed by gang members for other reasons. She said 2,706 people were categorized as "inactive" gang members.

The police department's official numbers differ from the professor's.

NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea is expected to testify at a City Council hearing Wednesday that the nation's largest police department has made great strides, whittling its database from 34,000 names five years ago to 17,500 this year. Shea told the Daily News that the NYPD has set up "tighter standards" for entry into the database -- and that it routinely expunges names "through mandated reviews of individuals every three years."

The federal gang database has been used as a pretext for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to come after undocumented immigrants. For Dempsey and other criminal justice reformers, the mystery surrounding the NYPD database leaves it prone to erroneous information and misuse.

"There is too much room for abuse," said Dempsey. "Even if it seems the numbers have gone down, there's no way to know what they're using to decide if you should be in the database," he said. "Are you actually putting gang members in the database, or people who know gang members -- and are they being put in it without their knowledge?"

Marne Lenox, an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the group months ago asked in a FOIL request for the same information Shea is now providing. Similar questions by Legal Aid, which also filed a FOIL request, and the Daily News, also went unanswered.

"It seems clear," Lenox said, "that unless they are being threatened with a lawsuit or are being made to testify at a public hearing they are not going to provide such information. It certainly doesn't engender trust."

Dempsey said he was entered into a database for all the wrong reasons. Corrections labeled him a Crip because one of the gang's members wrote to him at Rikers Island. That information, he suspects, was passed to the state Department of Corrections, which passed it to the Parole Department, which passed it to the NYPD. The officer who pulled him over was concerned for his own safety, so he handcuffed Dempsey and put him in the back of the patrol car -- where a computer screen displayed his mug shot and described him as a "security risk."

"That's when I realized how serious this was," Dempsey said. "I'm a changed man. My life is completely different now -- but I'm still in the database."

In California, a law passed in 2013 requires police departments to notify the parents of minors whose names are in a database -- and to allow them to contest the inclusion.

Last September, the Portland, Ore., Police Bureau became the first department to shut down its gang database in an effort to rebuild trust with city residents. Other databases have been harshly criticized, including California's statewide roster, which in a 2016 audit was found to have the names of 42 people, some of whom were 1-year-olds when they were entered into it. Of those 42 people, 28 supposedly admitted to being in a gang, the audit found.

Wednesday's hearing, by the Council's Public Safety Committee, is expected to raise questions about enforcement in minority neighborhoods and comes on the heels of scrutiny of how the NYPD makes marijuana arrests in such areas.

"The NYPD gang policing is the epitome of government secrecy," said Anthony Posada, supervising attorney for Legal Aid's Community Justice Unit. "The public knows virtually nothing about the department's gang-enforcement tactics, and its database that ensnares black and brown New Yorkers at record speed under the de Blasio administration."

With Janon Fisher

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(c)2018 New York Daily News

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