Top Cop Eddie Johnson Vows Changes to Chicago Gang Database

It’s a list of more than 100,000 people and one that most would rather avoid. The Chicago gang database is coming under legal scrutiny as many are saying they have been wrongly listed and are being targeted. Now, Chicago’s top cop is vowing to change it.

The Chicago Police Department keeps records of everyone arrested in the last four years in Illinois, and one of the designations they track is gang affiliation. According to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Policing in Chicago Research Group, CPD identifies more than 128,000 individuals as part of a gang. Three-quarters are African-American, one-quarter are Hispanic and about 5 percent are Caucasian. Information is gleaned from investigatory street stops and arrest records, and the police department can use criteria like someone’s tattoos or clothing choices to determine whether they are affiliated with a gang.

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The controversial system has led to a lawsuit in which an undocumented immigrant accused CPD of mistakenly labeling him as a gang member. It has also caused the inspector general to audit the program.

Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson on Monday said he recognizes the system should be tweaked, but that police rely on it.

“We recognize that some people may be misidentified at certain points, and we are looking at processes in terms of taking them out of that particular territory,” Johnson said after a speech at the City Club of Chicago. “But it’s important for us to know who the people are in this city and state that are affiliated with gangs, but we also have a responsibility to get it right.”

“We recognize that some people may be misidentified,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said.“We recognize that some people may be misidentified,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said.

The police department says it’s important to track a person’s gang status because it helps them assess risks and helps in solving crime. For instance, if someone is the victim of a crime and they are in a gang, perhaps they look at a rival gang for clues. But the issue, according to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, is that once people have this designation, they have it for life.

“We have people who are anti-gang CeaseFire workers in their 40s who are on this list because of something maybe they did in their teens,” said the ACLU of Illinois’ Karen Sheley. “The problem is that it’s easy to get on one of these lists, but almost impossible to get off.”

The police department says it’s looking at adding a designation that would identify someone as part of a gang but also the number of years they’ve been dormant. They may also stop asking people for their gang affiliation altogether when they conduct investigatory street stops going forward.

Also at Monday’s City Club speech, the superintendent lauded the fact that homicides and shootings are down 25 percent this year over last, and that in one district, Greater Grand Crossing on the city’s South Side, they are down more than 50 percent. Much of that reduction comes from the Harrison and Englewood police districts – historically some of the most violent. And Johnson credits increased technology like ShotSpotter in allowing cops to more quickly detect where gunfire is coming from.

Johnson also reacted rather harshly to the Chicago magazine article that juxtaposed the lives of slain police Cmdr. Paul Bauer and Shomari Legghette, the man charged with his murder.

“Paul Bauer’s a hero,” Johnson said. “The guy that murdered him, to me, is a nameless person and a coward, and he should not be talked about in the same sense as Paul Bauer.”

Johnson’s speech comes as City Council weighs creating a civilian oversight board that could have the power to fire the superintendent, something Johnson says is a bad idea.

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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What Oversight Should Civilians Have Over Chicago Police?

Sweaters and Other Strange Ephemera of Chicago’s 1970s Street Gangs

Study: Thrill, Lack of Recreational Activities Attract Youth to Gangs

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