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Chicago Police Continue To Use ‘Seriously Flawed’ Gang Database Despite Pledging An Overhaul 2 Years Ago, Watchdog Finds

"For Chicagoans impacted by an opaque and procedurally flawed system, time is short — and two years is a very long time," said one official with the Inspector General's Office.

Members of a coalition protest the Chicago Police's gang database in 2019.
Heather Cherone / The Daily Line
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CHICAGO — The much maligned gang database maintained by the Chicago Police Department is riddled with mistakes, and despite agreeing to overhaul the system in 2019, a new database with stricter guidelines won’t be completed until September.

A 2019 report from the city’s top watchdog found the Police Department utilized 18 different forms and portals to maintain its list of suspected gang members, but the databases lacked oversight, didn’t inform individuals that they were on the list and wasn’t regularly audited for accuracy.

Were the birthdates officers entered accurate for some supposed gang members, they would be more than 117 years old; others put the person’s age at zero. Thousands of people have multiple birth dates, are designated gang members without a specific affiliation or are listed as gang members with no explanation. Some are as old as 75 and as young as nine. Almost everyone is Black or Latino, there’s no system to correct or purge bad information, and CPD shares the information with hundreds of outside agencies.

Despite agreeing two years ago to overhaul how the department codifies and tracks gang activity, the watchdog said Chicago Police have made “minimal progress”  towards creating a new gang intelligence system and haven’t been forthcoming about how department leaders are addressing the problems. In an 85-page audit released Wednesday, officials with the city’s Inspector General’s Office said there is little evidence the department has changed any of its procedures since they were detailed in a damning report in 2019. 

“Though CPD agreed with many of our original recommendations, the Department has fallen critically short of the commitments it made in 2019 to render its policies on and systems for gang information more transparent and just,” said Deborah Witzburg, Deputy Inspector General for Public Safety.

“We welcome indications of recent progress, but for Chicagoans impacted by an opaque and procedurally flawed system, time is short — and two years is a very long time.”

In a letter dated March 30, Police Supt. David Brown criticized the report and Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s office, claiming it contains “outdated information” and “counters the notion” that the OIG’s public safety division would partner with the Police Department to “work together toward the reform this city so deserves.”

The OIG’s 2019 report found the system to be mismanaged, without a chance for individuals to appeal their inclusion in the database and without regular oversight to ensure gang designations were based on reliable evidence.

The Police Department had no way to inform individuals they had been designated as a gang member and did not have a process for people placed on the registry to appeal the decision. Even the term “gang database” was a misnomer, the report found, as the department didn’t have a centralized database but rather 18 “separate forms, records, and systems of records containing gang-related information.”

That gang information was shared with more than 500 external departments, including immigration agencies.

Being listed in the gang database had “profound and negative consequences,” on someone’s life, the report found, including enhanced surveillance, increased bail and bond terms, longer sentencing or other punishments, immigration challenges and “obstacles to employment.”

In response, Chicago Police agreed to “fully implement” 18 of OIG’s 27 recommendations, and partially implement eight others. CPD rejected a recommendation to “establish formal protection for juveniles,” claiming current practices already produced “greater protections for minors than adults.”

The department then created a draft policy change guiding the creation of a new gang database in April 2019. But when Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office, she rejected the changes as a “nonstarter” and vowed to overhaul the database under her own administration.

Lightfoot worked with the City Council to prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials from accessing the database. An updated draft of the order governing the database policy was released in February 2020, and has been revised since, according to Wednesday’s report.

However, OIG found steps to actually create that new system have stalled because of the lack of a clear timeline, and shakeups at the department following the appointment of interim Police Supt. Charlie Beck, and later the hiring of Brown in April 2020.

Additionally, the police officials are continuing to collect and use gang activity information in the same ways they’ve already admitted are “seriously flawed,” Witzburg said.

After a shooting in July 2020, Brown said publicly that there were 117,000 gang members in Chicago belonging to 55 known gangs. But a “senior official” in the department later told OIG investigators the number was closer to 54,000 to 55,000 gang members during an interview, according to the report.

In another example, Chicago Police successfully blocked a concealed weapons permit after telling state authorities the person was listed in the gang database. When the person was arrested for a misdemeanor as a juvenile in 2006, he self-identified as a gang member. But in two subsequent misdemeanor arrests — the charges were dropped in both cases — there was no indication he was part of a gang, according to the report.

“In sum, CPD accessed a gang identification for a juvenile, recorded in its database 15 years ago, and then shared that information with the State of Illinois, after the publication of OIG’s April 2019 report and CPD’s acceptance of most of the recommendations contained therein,” the report states.

Even as the department is supposed to be working on a new database, the OIG says CPD leaders haven’t “clearly and specifically” articulated why the system is needed at all.

“A ‘gang database’ that does not remain up-to-date, that cannot effectively track the shifting alliances and conflicts across many small gang factions, or that cannot distinguish gang members at high risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of violence from those at low risk, might be of little or no value,” the report says.

Brown said the Office of the Inspector General was “intentionally chipping away at the strides the department has taken to rebuild public confidence during an incredibly tumultuous time in our city’s and country’s history.”

Brown also said there are “limitations” that constrain the department from its “quest to repair relationships with the community.”

“These limitations are in a variety of areas including financial limitations, personnel constraints and capacity concerns, not to mention the physical and emotional toll that this past year has taken on our members,” he said.

Brown said the new database would be completed by September 2021 and the effort is being led by Deputy Chief Thomas Mills.

Wednesday’s report is the latest in a string of publications from the Office of the Inspector General criticizing the Police Department, including a stinging rebuke of the department’s response to large scale demonstrations last summer following the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd.

Ferguson also criticized the pace and coordination of police reform in a November budget hearing, saying the departure of key public safety personnel across city departments left the city without the “infrastructure” to implement reform.

“The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Take that and apply it to an octopus, and that’s where we are right now,” he said.

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