Skip to contents

95 Percent Of Chicagoans Listed As Gang Members By Chicago Police Are Black, Latino, Watchdog Audit Finds

Department officials cannot confirm gang designations “are based on reliable evidence” or ensure that the data “serves a legitimate law enforcement purpose,” according to the audit.

Members of a coalition protest the Chicago Police's gang database in 2019.
Heather Cherone / The Daily Line
  • Credibility:

Get more in-depth, daily coverage of Chicago politics at The Daily Line.

CHICAGO — Approximately 95 percent of the at least 134,242 Chicagoans listed as gang members by the Chicago Police Department are Black or Latino, an audit released Thursday by the city’s watchdog found.

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s 158-page report on the Chicago Police Department’s use of 18 different methods to track members of Chicago’s gangs in the past 10 years found that officials were “not able to definitively account for all such information in its possession and control.”

“The coupling of a lack of controls with the absence of procedural fairness protections inhibits the department’s ability to assure the accuracy of its information, and potentially undermines public confidence in the department’s legitimacy and effectiveness in the service of its public safety mission,” the audit concluded.

Read the full report here.

Eighty-eight percent of those designations were made during street stops on the South and West Side after the person under arrest said they belonged to a gang, according to the report.

Overwhelming number of Black and Latino Chicagoans listed in the database is not evidence of racism by department officials, Ferguson said.

However, “it does raise substantial questions that need to be asked,” Ferguson said during a news conference at City Hall.

Ferguson called on members of the Public Safety Committee to hold hearings on the police department’s use of the gang database, which he said contained “overbroad and inaccurate” information.

Ferguson said it was a “good question” whether the police department should even operate a database.

“The department’s lax approach to labeling people as gang members, without caring about the consequences, leads to further criminalization, control, and oppression of people of color in Chicago,” said Karen Sheley, the director of the ACLU of Illinois’ Police Practices Project. “The City will have a lot of work to do in cleaning up its act on this database.”

Members of the Erase the Database coalition gathered at City Hall Thursday afternoon to call the release of the audit a watershed moment that bolsters the claims members have made during their effort to shut the database down since 2017.

Credit: Heather Cherone / The Daily Line
Inspector General Joseph Ferguson calls for the City Council to hold hearings on the police department’s use of a database to track gang members.

Reyna Wences of Organized Communities Against Deportations said the audit makes it clear that the database is “racist and is harmful.”

Veronica Rodriguez, a youth organizer with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said the database “encourages the criminalization and incarceration of the most vulnerable and poor communities.”

Shelia Bedi, a Northwestern University Law professor and an attorney at the MacArthur Center who has brought a class-action lawsuit against the city for its use of the database in federal court said the audit will prove her case.

Bedi said she had no confidence that the Chicago Police Department could operate a database and protect Chicagoans’ constitutional rights, given the department’s long history of racism.

Latino Caucus Chairman Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36) said he was stunned by the audit.

Villegas said in a statement that he was particularly troubled by the “lack of oversight or control of a system that can ruin people’s lives.” 

“We absolutely must shut this program down until we can add oversight,” he said. 

More than 500 external agencies have access to the department’s gang databases, according to the audit. According to the department, individuals can be entered into the database when they admit to gang affiliation, wear or use gang emblems, tattoos, hand signals or other symbols or are identified by an officer “with special intelligence” on gangs.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which recently agreed to disable one of its own gang databases, was the outside agency that used the CPD database most frequently. 

Chicago Public Schools were the third-most frequent user of the database, according to the police department’s data, Ferguson said.

However, CPS officials told the inspector general’s office that they do not use the database, Ferguson said.

A spokesman for CPS told The Daily Line the district does not use the database.

The system the department uses to track which agencies access the gang database also records which agencies review other types of data, including school safety plans, Chicago Police Department spokesman Howard Ludwig said.

“Because the tracking system is co-mingled, CPS posted high activity levels as shown in the Inspector General’s report,” Ludwig said in a statement. “We have no evidence of CPS accessing any gang affiliation information and have reached out to the Office of the Inspector General to determine how they came to this conclusion.” 

More than 32,000 queries came from four or five immigration agencies, making up less than 1 percent of the total number of queries, according to the report.

However, that is still a “meaningful” number, Ferguson said.

The ACLU of Illinois called on Chicago police to immediately stop sharing information with federal immigration officials, and echoed the audit’s call for aldermen to amend Chicago’s sanctuary city ordinance to remove exceptions for those listed in a gang database.

Ferguson’s audit focused on “gang arrest cards” completed by officers.

According to the audit, 11.3 percent of those cards do not identify which specific gang that individual belongs to and 11.7 percent do not list a reason for the gang designation.

Department officials cannot confirm those designations “are based on reliable evidence” and ensure that the data “serves a legitimate law enforcement person,” according to the audit.

In addition, while state law requires that those records be regularly destroyed, Chicago police do not purge outdated or incorrect records, according to the audit.

The youngest person designated by the Chicago Police Department was 9 years old — and has been in the database for 19 years, according to the audit. The oldest person designated as a gang member was 75 years old — and has been in the database for 10 years, according to the audit.

The median age of Chicagoans listed in the gang database is 22, Ferguson said. Most of the people listed in the database are Black and Latino men in their late teens, he added.

Ninety records kept by the Chicago Police list people with birthdates before 1901, while 80 records list individuals who have an age of zero, according to the audit.

More than 900 people were listed under multiple genders, according to the audit. 

Individuals who are listed as gang members are not notified, and not given an opportunity to contest incorrect information.

“It is apparent that the lack of transparency around CPD’s ‘gang database’-related strategies, strain police-community relations,” the report said.

Ferguson’s office recommends a “holistic evaluation” of the gang database program if it continues, as well as “comprehensive changes” including the consideration of the database’s “collateral consequences.” 

The police should also require specific evidence of an individual’s gang affiliation before listing them as a gang member. Those individuals should also be notified that they have been designated a gang member, and given the opportunity to contest that designation, according to the audit.

Records should also be regularly reviewed and purged, which should be documented by regular public reports, according to the audit.

The department should also reconsider sharing this information with other law enforcement agencies, including those charged with enforcing federal immigration law, the audit says, and a “stakeholder committee” should be formed to weigh in on ongoing reforms.

In response, Chicago Police Department officials proposed creating a new system, dubbed the Criminal Enterprise Database.

It be a “single, unified system” that will include “updated and vetted” information and provide an opportunity for individuals listed to be notified and allowed to appeal their designation.

Ferguson said those proposed changes do not go far enough.

Hours after Ferguson released his audit, police officials published a draft of the order creating the new database and opened a 30-day period for members to comment on its creation and rules.

Police Supt. Eddie Johnson defended the use of the database during a City Club speech in April 2018.

“We recognize that some people may be misidentified at certain points and we are looking at processes in terms of being able to give them what they need in terms of taking them out of that particular territory,” Johnson said. “I think that it’s important for us to know who the people are in this city and in this state are committing crimes and are affiliated with gangs but we also have a responsibility to get it right.”

Todd St. Hill, an organizer with Black Youth Project 100, said he was “shocked and disgusted” by the proposal for a new database.

The current databases will remain active and available to other law-enforcement agencies, according to the audit.

The police department also rejected Ferguson’s recommendation for a stakeholder panel. Their proposed appeals process, Ferguson says, “has substantive barriers and no additional protections for juveniles.”

Officers would orally inform people they are being included in the gang database under the police department’s plan, Ferguson said. To appeal that decision, they would have to go to police headquarters between 8 a.m. and noon on a weekday, Ferguson said.

“A lot more is needed than that,” Ferguson said. “There needs to be more rigor.”

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot has called for the gang database to be replaced and “strict guidelines” imposed to ensure “it only includes intelligence collected from real, credible police investigations and is regularly audited to make sure that the information remains relevant and credible.”

The police department should not share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and criteria for including individuals in the database should be determined by a public process, Lightfoot said.

Ferguson was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to a third, four-year term in May 2017.

A similar, but more limited gang database used at the Cook County Jail has been decommissioned, according to Sheriff Tom Dart, a move activists with the Erase the Database coalition celebrated. The county board also passed an ordinance to set guidelines for its destruction and prohibit further data-sharing and participation in external databases.

Two men have sued the Chicago Police Department alleging that federal officials targeted them for deportation because they were listed in the police database as gang members.