Photo courtesy of #EraseTheDatabase campaign
The People is our section for opinions on all things concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, community organizer and professor Andy Clarno talks about the Chicago Police Department’s gang database, and how it hurts Black and Brown communities. 

The Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) expansive gang databases are composed almost entirely of Black and Latino men. Citing the harm they have caused, a coalition of community organizations — including Black Youth Project 100, Organized Communities Against Deportation, Mijente, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and more — has campaigned for more than two years to abolish gang databases in Chicago.

Although more than 145,000 people are on CPD’s gang databases, most are unaware that their names are on the lists. From Nov. 8-23, the #EraseTheDatabase campaign is hosting workshops across Chicago to help people submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out if they are on CPD gang databases.

In an era of big data, police databases have transformed racialized perceptions of illegality into permanent records that come with real consequences. 

Simon Balto, an African American History professor at the University of Iowa, wrote the book “Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power.” He notes that before police began using databases to shape deployments, Chicago police arrested two to three times more Black residents than white residents every year. This changed in the late 1990s when “the CPD effectively stopped arresting white people and drove Black-to-white arrest disparities to rates about 7:1.” Is it a coincidence that this shift occurred at precisely the moment that the department began expanding its databases and using this data to determine deployments?

Enormous database of records.

In the last 20 years, CPD has built an enormous database containing tens of millions of records. Among the tools police use to track gang affiliation, there are at least two primary databases of gang designations: Gang Arrest Cards are produced whenever police arrest someone that they identify as a gang member and Investigatory Stop Reports are generated during police stops that do not end in an arrest, such as the all-too-common practice of stop-and-frisk. 

A recent report by the City of Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson shows that the Gang Arrest Card Database includes more than 134,000 names. Chicago police released a version of the Investigatory Stop Database that identifies more than 145,000 people as gang members. These staggering numbers demonstrate that the databases are expansive. 

They are also highly focused, meaning that they disproportionately include people of color. Seventy percent of people on both lists are Black, 25% are Latinx, less than 4% are white and less than 1% is Asian. While most people on the lists are young men in their late teens and 20s, there are also thousands of Black and Latinx children and elders. 

Graphic by #EraseTheDatabase campaign.

Although the CPD has criteria for identifying gang members (self-admission, tattoos and markings, signs and symbols, or identification by an informant or a gang expert), the department requires no evidence to support gang designations. According to the Inspector General’s report, 88.18% of people on the Gang Arrest Card database “self-admitted” to gang membership. But arresting officers are not required to document this admission. Instead, they just click a box on their report indicating the person admitted belonging to a gang. Another 11.66% of people on the database were added without the officer providing any justification. 

When added together, this means 99.84% of the 134,000 people on the database were added at the discretion of the officer. In practice, if police stop a young person of color in an area that police classify as “gang territory” or with people considered “gang members,” the person is highly likely to end up on the gang database. 

Since the late 1990s, CPD has employed data scientists who analyze police databases to identify individuals and neighborhoods for aggressive policing. This creates a vicious cycle: aggressive patrols generate stops and arrests, which become data that justifies more aggressive patrols. In this context, the database itself becomes evidence of over-policing in Black and Latinx communities.

Gang databases: Errors abound

The Inspector General’s report demonstrates that the CPD gang database is full of errors, including thousands of people identified as members of multiple opposing gangs. The database is also characterized by egregious violations of a person’s right to due process, since they are not informed when their names are added to the database. In turn, this means they do not have an opportunity to challenge their designation. And the CPD does not have a mechanism for removing names from its gang databases. 

In response to the Inspector General’s report, CPD proposed a new gang database – the Criminal Enterprise Database – to address these errors and Constitutional violations. Although Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared this proposal a “non-starter,” CPD maintains that having an accurate gang database is crucial for keeping communities and officers safe. 

But an improved database would not address the real issues. Gang designations turn race and class inequality into a permanent record. And assumptions about the objective, scientific nature of data help legitimize aggressive policing in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Moreover, inclusion on the gang database has serious consequences regardless of whether a person is actually involved in a street gang. Inclusion makes people vulnerable to more regular and violent police encounters. It has a negative impact on bail, bond, sentencing, prison and parole decisions. It can also create barriers to housing and employment. People on the list have been denied jobs because some background checks include gang designations.  And people with family members on the database can be prevented from leaving jail or prison because they have no place to live due to probation or parole conditions that prevent association with other gang members. 

These impacts are not limited to encounters with local law enforcement. CPD shares its databases with more than 500 law enforcement agencies across the country. County, state and federal agencies use this data to target those classified as “gang members.” ICE and other immigration authorities searched CPD gang data more than 32,000 times in the last 10 years, according to the Inspector General. Despite Chicago’s claim to be a sanctuary city, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has historically used this data to prioritize targets for detention and deportation. 

For the last three years, I have coordinated the Policing in Chicago Research Group, a team of faculty and students at UIC that provides research support to the campaign. It has been an inspiration to work alongside Black, Latinx, Arab American, and Asian American organizers who are building powerful grassroots connections and bringing about real, transformative justice. 

When the campaign began, none of this information on the gang database was public. Community organizations involved with the #EraseTheDatabase campaign have worked diligently to shed light on this secretive database.  The campaign has conducted research into the database, organized teach-ins to share information with community members, filed a federal class-action lawsuit against CPD, and proposed ordinances to regulate the database. The upcoming FOIA clinics provide an opportunity for people to find out if their names are on the list.  

In January, the Cook County Sheriff responded to the campaign by decommissioning its gang database. CPD should follow the sheriff’s lead. The department is not likely to move on its own, but the City Council can take steps now to regulate the database. The council should hold public hearings into the CPD gang database.  And it should approve an ordinance placing a moratorium on gang designations and eliminating federal access to CPD data. 

There is a City Council meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 13. Organizers and community members will attend and call on the council to hold public hearings on the CPD gang database to address issues raised by the Inspector General’s report.

Andy Clarno is associate professor of sociology and African American studies and coordinator of the Policing in Chicago Research Group at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a Public Voices Fellow at the Op-Ed Project.