Nearly four and a half years after the city’s watchdog warned the police department’s gang databases were riddled with errors, ripe for abuse and disproportionately targeted Black and Latino Chicagoans, an interim commission overseeing the Chicago Police Department voted to scrap plans to launch a new system.
The unanimous vote by the interim Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability caps an effort that began in 2017 to stop the Chicago Police Department from using databases to track Chicagoans they believe to be in a gang. It also fulfills a campaign promise made by Mayor Brandon Johnson, who vowed to “erase the racist gang database and remove this source of racial profiling that leads to frequent, unproductive police interactions and harms residents’ ability to find housing and jobs.”
Commission President Anthony Driver said it was time to put efforts to relaunch the gang database to bed.
“It is about time we end it once and for all,” Driver told WTTW News before the vote, adding that there was no evidence the gang database ever made Chicago safer.
Driver said the “very racist and discriminatory” gang database “directly harmed people” who were denied employment and “their basic dignity.”
The audit released by former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson in April 2019 found that the Chicago Police Department listed 134,242 people as gang members. Approximately 95% of those in the databases were Black or Latino.
The youngest person designated by the Chicago Police Department as a gang member was 9 years old — and had been in the database for 19 years, according to the audit. The oldest person designated as a gang member was 75 years old — and had been in the database for 10 years, according to the audit.
Immediately after that audit was released, Chicago Police brass promised to correct the errors identified by the inspector general and launch a new method of tracking gang members in what the department called a Criminal Enterprise Information System.
While that push had the full support of former Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, those efforts stalled as the city faced a class-action lawsuit that demanded significant changes to the way police officers used the gang database. That lawsuit was settled in November 2020.
The new system was delayed as officials tried to verify the data included in the old system before including it in the new database. In December, officials had whittled the old system down to 35,091, with just 1,074 people listed in the new database, officials said.
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.”
Lightfoot and Brown made one last attempt to launch the new system in December, only to face concerted opposition from the new police oversight commission, which has the authority to set “guidelines for all CPD policies related to data collection,” according to a statement from the board.
The City Council voted in November 2021 to give the Chicago Police Board the power to overrule the Chicago Police Department and remove a Chicagoan from the gang database.
That vote came despite unanswered questions about whether Chicago Police would notify those listed in the database, allowing them a chance to appeal. As proposed, Chicagoans would have only found out if they had been included in the database by going to police headquarters, one of five district police stations or Chicago city clerk offices.
As a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, Johnson led a successful effort to scrap the database used by Cook County law enforcement agencies, which was also besieged with complaints about errors and racism.