You are being watched. The very color of your shirt, the company you keep and the neighborhood in which you live are all seemingly arbitrary factors that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance can weaponize to single you out as a gang member.
In fact, residing in areas with high gang activity, posting something deemed suspicious on social media, having gang scars or tattoos, even using certain hand signals can leave an individual marked as a “security risk” and included in the DA’s database of possible gang members. And although, of course, wearing a blue shirt doesn’t make you a gang member, being condemned to the gang database was never meant to be an evidence-based process. The list has little basis in fact and instead relies heavily on racial profiling and criminalizing communities of color.
The purpose of the list is to facilitate easy convictions, regardless of whether someone is guilty. The criteria provided is nowhere near a perfect science, far from Cy Vance’s strategy of “intelligence driven prosecution,” and certainly not how a prosecutor should build a case. And although Vance might try to sell himself as a progressive, touting policies such as his decision to stop prosecuting most marijuana offenses, make no mistake, he is not. One of the exceptions to this newfound rule is posing a significant threat to public safety—that includes being on the gang database.
At its best, the list is the continuation of broken windows policing. At its worst, it is a tool of social control that shamelessly pursues the imprisonment of young people of color and fans the flames of mass incarceration. There is no notification, no room for rebuttal, no families brought into the process and no attempt to keep young people identified as “security risks” from slipping into criminal behavior.
As a criminal defense attorney, I have spent a significant amount of time in criminal court. Over the course of several years, I began noticing a pattern: certain case files were pulled aside and separated from the rest. For individuals whose case files were tagged, the plea bargains offered by the DA, if they were offered at all, couldn’t exactly be called “bargains.”
I’m not the only one who took note. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund sought to find out more about Cy Vance’s database, issuing a Freedom of Information Law request, to which the DA’s office failed to respond. Clearly, behind all the “progressive” messaging, the DA has something to hide.
It’s not enough to demand the gang database be overhauled or that its sweeping criteria be re-examined or standardized. It’s not enough to condemn the list’s opaque nature and demand more transparency. Instead, we must acknowledge the common themes across the various gang databases in cities and states across the U.S.: they are riddled with errors, and people of color are disproportionately targeted. There are ways to combat gang violence in the city that don’t require collateral damage, but this database isn’t it. That’s why the Manhattan DA must follow in the steps of cities such as Portland, Ore., and dismantle the gang database.
There are very real, sometimes dire consequences of casting such wide a net and denying individuals their civil liberties and constitutional rights. I’ve seen it myself: the outcomes for those who find themselves on Cy Vance’s gang database are always worse.