3 Years After Watchdog Warned Police Gang Databases Were ‘Deeply Flawed,’ New System Yet to Launch

Chicago Police Department officials have yet to replace the databases used to track Chicagoans they believe to be members of gangs, more than three years after the city’s watchdog warned the records were riddled with errors, ripe for abuse and disproportionately targeted Black and Latino Chicagoans.

Police officials, including Superintendent David Brown, have repeatedly told members of the Chicago City Council that the new gang database — dubbed the Criminal Enterprise Information System — would be up and running shortly, only to see those deadlines repeatedly missed without explanation. 

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Deputy Chief Ernest Cato told members of the Public Safety Committee in February that the system would launch no later than March 15. Fifty days later, the system remains under development.

It is unclear when the new system will launch — and why it has taken so long to replace a system that the police department itself acknowledged in April 2019 was deeply flawed. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office declined to respond to questions from WTTW News about the system, referring questions to the Chicago Police Department.

Department officials are “ensuring the information being entered into the new system accurately comports with the strict guidelines of the new system,” according to a statement from Chicago Police spokesperson Don Terry.   

The Chicago Police Department has not yet finalized the policy that will govern the system. The police department’s website features only a draft of the policy released in November

That draft policy requires officers to have “specific, documented and reliable information” obtained within five years before including a Chicagoan in the database. However, that policy does not require those listed in the database to be notified of their inclusion — or informed about how to appeal their designation as a member of a gang in Chicago.

The draft policy would only allow Chicagoans to find out if they have been included in the database by going to police headquarters, one of five district police stations or Chicago city clerk offices. Parents of teens included in the database could appeal on their behalf. The Police Department would have 90 days to respond. 

People can also be added to the database if two or more additional criteria are reached, including wearing clothing with gang emblems, having a tattoo of a gang insignia or being referred to as a gang member in the court record of a criminal charge, according to the policy.

Those listed in the database must be removed after five years if they no longer qualify for inclusion in the system, according to the policy.

The Chicago City Council voted 29-18 in November to grant the Chicago Police Board the power to overrule the Chicago Police Department and remove a Chicagoan from its gang database. 

Many of the City Council members who voted against that policy, which was backed by Lightfoot, said it was premature because the rules governing the under-development system had yet to be finalized.

An April 2019 audit by former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson determined the city’s gang databases were a “deeply flawed collection of gang data, with poor quality controls and inadequate protections for procedural rights.”

Approximately 95% of the at least 134,242 Chicagoans listed as gang members by the CPD were Black or Latino, Ferguson’s audit found. Individuals were entered into at least one of 18 databases when they admitted to gang affiliation, wore or used gang emblems, tattoos, hand signals or other symbols, or were identified by an officer “with special intelligence” on gangs. 

Former Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson immediately agreed to replace the city’s gang databases after Ferguson’s audit was released, which came amid a torrent of criticism that the flawed records put Chicagoans at risk of being deported, denied housing or rejected by employers.

But plans for a new system stalled after Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office in May 2019 and wanted new revisions. The city also faced a class-action lawsuit that demanded changes to the way police officers used the gang database. That lawsuit was settled in November 2020 after city officials agreed to make a series of significant changes to the way the database operates.

As part of the lawsuit’s resolution, the department agreed to publish data about the age, race and reason for inclusion of those listed in the system as belonging to a gang, according to court records. 

The department also agreed to publish information about how many people are added to the gang database, how many people appeal that designation and how many of those appeals are granted and denied.

Lightfoot’s 2019 campaign platform promised to replace the existing databases “and impose strict guidelines for operating and maintaining any replacement database so it only includes intelligence collected from real, credible police investigations and is regularly audited to make sure that the information remains relevant and credible.”

Lightfoot moved in July 2019 to permanently block agents for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency from accessing the database amid a rash of threats from former President Donald Trump to conduct raids in Chicago and other cities nationwide in an effort to deport undocumented immigrants.

But Lightfoot has rejected calls for the city to abolish the databases entirely, saying there are “legitimate” reasons for the police department to maintain a list of gang members.

Police officers will no longer fill out “gang arrest” cards and submit that information as justification for adding someone to the database, according to the agreement resolving the lawsuit. Those cards contained unreliable information and were disproportionately used to tag Black and Latino Chicagoans as gang members, according to Ferguson’s audit.

That data will be “walled off,” and no members of the police department will be able to access it. If that data is accessed through the department’s Citizens and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting, or CLEAR, database, it will be tagged with a disclaimer that any gang membership information had not been verified, according to the lawsuit settlement.

In March 2021, a follow-up audit by Ferguson found the department was still using data from the flawed gang databases. During a July 2021 City Council committee hearing, former Deputy Chief Thomas Mills told alderpeople that police officers need a database that lists individuals’ gang affiliations to prevent “retaliatory violence” and give officers a chance to “get ahead of the next crime.”

Mills is now chief of police in suburban Broadview.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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