City Hall holds hearing on discriminatory gang policing practices

Matthew Brown | 6/21/2018, 1:28 p.m.
The New York City Council Committee on Public Safety held a public hearing regarding the New York Police Department’s gang ...
New York City Hall Wikipedia

The New York City Council Committee on Public Safety held a public hearing regarding the New York Police Department’s gang policing tactics Tuesday, June 13, at City Hall. At issue were the NYPD’s latest targeting and arresting techniques, namely the force’s maintenance of a “gang database” and police raids in minority communities. Activists and academics argue these practices are a continuation of the racially discriminatory profiling practices that were characteristic of stop-and-frisk and earlier eras.

Central to the NYPD’s gang policing practices is the usage of a secret gang database. Between 2001 and August 2013, the NYPD added 21,357 individuals to this database. Only 1 percent of these individuals were white; 48 percent were Black and 44 percent were Latino, a contrast made sharper when compared to New York City’s demographics: 33 percent white, 26 percent Black and 26 percent Hispanic.

What’s more, the NYPD’s criteria for inclusion in this gang database have been described by activists as arbitrary and indiscriminate. According to an article by K. Babe Howell, a professor at CUNY School of Law, an individual may be entered into the database if they either admit to membership during debriefing, are identified as a gang member by two independent sources or meet any two of the following criteria: spends time in a “known gang location”; has “scars/tattoos associated with gangs”; has “gang related documents”; wears “colors associated with gangs”; has “association with known gang members”; and uses “hand signs associated with gangs.” Howell also noted that none of these methods require any arrest or criminal conduct on the behalf of the individual entered into the database. Thus, individuals residing in a “known gang location,” commonly public housing, and who are associated with “gang-affiliated” individuals through family relation or friendship, may be included in the gang database.

When asked about the racial breakdown of the gang database, NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said, “The racial breakdown, unfortunately, is extremely disparate, and it almost exactly mirrors our gun violence shooting breakdown in New York City…it’s approximately 95 percent people of color…when you look at the shooting violence in New York City, and you look at the individuals on either side of the gun—unfortunately, but it is the reality in New York City—[people of color are] roughly 95 percent…of the individuals getting shot or the individuals arrested for violence.”

The inquiry into the NYPD’s recent activities recalls the Department’s fraught history with stop-and-frisk practices, with activists noting that there has been little change to the NYPD’s effectiveness and arrest rates since the database’s inception. “This is nothing new—they’ve been doing these practices for decades. This database is just making it a lot easier for them to collect information and try to justify their raids,” said Sheppard “Brother Shepp” McDaniel, an adviser to the Stop The Raids Coalition. “They are trying to use statistics that show a decline in crime as their doing, but any decline in crime rates happened because of the communities that were affected. They’re trying to take credit for something they had nothing to do with.”

McDaniel, who testified at the hearing as well, felt that the event was a constructive moment to hear from the community, but felt the NYPD’s testimony and engagement was lacking. “Many people were left asking, ‘Why don’t they stay?’ If they truly wanted to create solutions they’d stay and have a dialogue with us. Instead, they presented their charts, made their case and left immediately.” McDaniel continued that the lackadaisical attendance by Council members was also concerning. “Every member of the Council should be present at this event, as this is a major issue that affects every borough of the city.”

Individuals presumed to be gang members face “heightened police surveillance, increased probability of police encounters and, for some, the threat of deportation,” according to a letter sent in February to the New York City Council Committee on Public Safety and the Committee on Oversight and Investigations by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Because the NYPD’s gang database operates in secret, individuals are not notified of their inclusion in the database and have no avenue of challenging their inclusion.

The letter continues, “The NYPD’s indiscriminate criteria for entry in its gang database can easily serve as a pretext to surveil and monitor communities of color without public oversight.”

Marne Lenox, an assistant counsel with the Legal Defense Fund, saw the City Hall hearings as productive but emphasized the need for greater deliberations and transparency. “Overall, the NYPD’s testimony raised more questions than it did answers. We are only just scraping into the NYPD’s gang policing practices,” she stated.

Although there remain too many unknowns for activists and legal advocates to comfortably recommend what should become of the database, other states and cities have already taken action regarding their gang databases. In October 2017, California overhauled the state’s gang database, CalGang, to allow for greater transparency and accountability of the entries after the state auditor discovered the database was riddled with errors and basic oversight mechanisms.

One month before California’s legislation, the Portland Police Bureau abolished the city’s gang database altogether after it was revealed that more than 80 percent of the those in the database were of color in a city that is almost 80 percent white. Currently, the Chicago Police Department is under corresponding criticism from its state and city governments for its gang database, which has been found to be 75 percent Black and 25 percent Hispanic.

The opacity of the gang database and police raids in the city is an issue that extends beyond the NYPD. Raids from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies have increased in New York City over the past few years, a trend that activists and academics also decry. “There are a number of community organizations concerned about immigrant raids right now, especially undocumented and Muslim groups who have seen a rise in policing of their neighborhoods,” said McDaniel.

When asked how advocates and community organizations across the city might respond, McDaniel was unambiguous: “Organizations seeking to combat this must remember that this is about the families. Clearly, these police forces are working together on all levels, we need to do the same.”