Being Labeled a Gang Member in L.A. is a Problem, Especially if It’s a Fabrication by the Police

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The Los Angeles Police Department launched an internal investigation after it emerged that more than a dozen officers wrongly identified people as gang members.(Shutterstock)

 

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) announced that more than a dozen officers with the elite Metro Division are under investigation on suspicion that they falsified information gathered during stops and wrongly identified individuals as gang members or associated with gangs. 

The investigation was launched after a San Fernando Valley mother received a letter informing her in early 2019 that her son had been identified as a gang member on California’s controversial gang database CalGang. The woman reported the misidentification to a supervisor at a nearby police station. 

While looking into the mother’s claim, the supervisor found inaccuracies between the documentation completed by the officer and body camera footage, LAPD said in a statement on January 7. The woman’s son was subsequently removed from any gang list and the department began an internal investigation into the three officers involved. 

Investigators discovered over the course of the months-long investigation, additional inaccuracies on documents completed by those three officers and from others. The officers involved had all been working in the elite Metropolitan Division at the time of the inaccurate documentation. “Given the serious nature of the alleged misconduct, all involved officers have been assigned to inactive duty or removed from the field,” the LAPD said. 

“An officer’s integrity must be absolute. There is no place in the Department for any individual who would purposefully falsify information on a Department report,” Chief Michel Moore said in a statement. Moore reached out to civil leaders in South L.A. on January 6 to explain the investigation, The Los Angeles Times reported. 

Sean Garcia-Leys, a senior staff attorney at the Urban Peace Institute (UPI), told The North Star he was pleasantly surprised to see the LAPD’s response to this incident. “I’m very happy the LAPD is taking this so seriously,” he said, noting that the law enforcement department has a long history of labeling individuals, particularly Black men, as gang members. 

What is CalGang?

CalGang is California’s gang database. The shared gang intelligence database was created to improve the efficiency of criminal investigations by “providing an accurate, timely, and electronically-generated base of statewide gang-related intelligence information,” according to its recent audit

Says Garcia-Leys, the process of being added to CalGang is almost entirely at the discretion of the police officers. Individuals can be added to the gang database if they meet at least two of the criteria on a field card, including wearing “gang clothes” being at a “gang location” or being with a known gang member. 

Garcia-Leys also highlighted the various issues people face after they are identified as gang members on CalGang, noting that suspected gang members face different treatment by law enforcement officers, which can mean longer traffic stops or extremely confrontational incidents. People listed as gang members are also more likely to be drawn into the criminal justice system, face higher bail amounts, less favorable plea deals and enhanced sentences. 

Suspected gang members involved with the criminal justice system could also receive a gang injunction, which prohibits them from contacting gang members. A prime example of this is the case of late rapper Nipsey Hussle’s friend, Kerry Lathan, who was shot alongside the beloved artist and community leader. Lathan, 56, was arrested by LAPD for violating his parole by speaking to Nipsey, who authorities said had gang ties. 

Meanwhile, despite California working hard to keep the gang database away from federal immigration officials, its information has been known to get into the hands of immigration enforcement, he added.

Struggles of Being Removed From the Gang Database

As of 2018, there were 88,670 people listed in California’s gang database. Between November 1, 2017 and October 31, 2018, more than 6,000 individuals were added to the database. Meanwhile, just 53 requests for removal were made to law enforcement agencies during that time period and only 11 of those were successful. 

Garcia-Leys tells The North Star that it’s very difficult to have your name removed from the CalGang database. He explains that prior to the passage of A.B. 2298, which requires individuals be given notice about being identified as gang members and establishes a removal-request process, thousands of Californians were added to the database without their knowledge. 

The senior UPI attorney added that the content of the database was secretive until just two years ago. Most people on the database, which can only be accessed by law enforcement agencies, don’t know that they are on it in the first place. And If and when they do find out, having your name removed is a complicated process. 

Suspected gang members, who are not given the evidence against them, must prove that they were wrongly identified as gang members directly with law enforcement officials who tend to just look at an officer’s field card documentation. Garcia-Leys said he was involved in one case where his client was able to have himself removed from the gang database after law enforcement realized only one requirement had been checked off. 

If officers check off two of the requirements of being identified as a gang member — typically ambiguous reasons such as “gang clothing” and “gang location” — then that individual must head to the courts to have themselves struck from the gang database. Garcia-Leys noted that filing a petition with the courts to be removed from the gang database is an “unusual process” and is often unsuccessful. 

Deeper Issues

Although law enforcement has defended CalGang as an important tool used by police officers, a state audit found that the database was mismanaged and misused, Garcia-Leys tells The North Star. The audit led to the passage of A.B. 90, which transferred control of the database from law enforcement to the California Department of Justice. 

Critics of the database, which include civil rights groups and Mayor Eric Garcetti, contend that it is being used as a smokescreen for racial profiling. Data from the California Department of Justice cited by The Los Angeles Times reveals that more than 90 percent of the nearly 90,000 people in the database in 2018 were men of color, predominantly Latino and Black.

In turn, law enforcement officials say they are not participating in racial profiling but instead are profiling for gang members. Garcia-Leys said that the recent incident that prompted the internal investigation at LAPD was “not a bad apple” case, but instead indicative of a systemic problem that puts immense pressure on police to add more people to the gang database to prove they are not racially profiling people. 

Garcia-Leys called for important reforms to be made with the gang database, which has spread to other major cities like Chicago and New York. He said that fixing CalGang is a “public safety issue,” noting that when adolescents are treated like gang members, they are more likely to become involved with gangs. Garcia-Leys also calls for more oversight, which he says has been slow to arrive. 

San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who sponsored A.B. 2298, told Voice of San Diego that it might be time to revisit the reform law and the gang database.

“We’re looking to see where we are with CalGang and whether or not folks are getting off the list,” she said. “Some are, but probably not enough.”


About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.

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