By Tandy Lau
The NYPD’s criminal group database—better known as the gang database—remains 99% Black and brown, according to the long-awaited Office of the Investigator General (OIG-NYPD) report on the controversial registry. The findings match a June 2018 testimony by then-Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea. Half a decade later, the numbers look eerily familiar.
Of the roughly 16,000 people registered during the investigation, 11,221 are Black. Another 4,729 are categorized as Hispanic. The remaining 1% of database entrants identify as either white or Asian. That’s fewer than 200 people, combined.
“The gang database is a backdoor way for the NYPD to criminalize Black and brown communities with zero due process or transparency,” said Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso by text message. “99% of the names that have been submitted to this database are Black and Latino New Yorkers, and it is nearly impossible for individuals to determine if their name is on the list, why it was added, or how they can be removed.
“Ensnaring innocent people in the gang database undermines trust in law enforcement and public safety in our communities. The question as to whether we should get rid of the database is asked and answered: the list has got to go. Now.”
Reynoso introduced legislation banning the gang database in 2021 while serving on the City Council. His former colleagues proposed Intro 360 last year, which will abolish the registry if passed.
Beyond the racial disparities, the report corroborated other long-standing concerns, mainly with transparency.
“Among the findings of the investigation were a lack of formal, written policies governing the database, particularly with respect to the application of the criteria for adding and maintaining individuals in the database; delays in the review of entries; and limited transparency to the public,” said Acting Inspector General Jeanene Barrett in a statement.
Entrants usually learn of their inclusion as a result of public or Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests filed on their behalf by the Legal Aid Society. Supervising attorney Anthony Posada told the Amsterdam News the report confirms the lack of formalized process for the inclusion of New Yorkers as young as age 11.
“Since we started our initiative to help people with FOIL requests, [they’re] at first met with resistance and people are denied those requests for information about themselves,” he said. “We weren’t promising they could get off, but at least they could see, and seeing [plays] an important part for them to learn how they came to be included in the database in the first place. It just shows that there are no constitutional protections.”
The report cracks open the NYPD’s murky methodology for what qualifies someone being added to the database. The department frequently relies on self-admissions, but New Yorkers aren’t telling on themselves. Instead, the OIG-NYPD found that posting “gang-related” emojis or photos is often sufficient evidence for inclusion.
Those who should no longer be in the database are not removed but instead deactivated. There’s no formal process for New Yorkers to contest their entry.
Barrett ultimately posed 17 recommendations for the NYPD stemming from the investigation, including a review (and subsequent removal) for unwarranted inclusions in the database.
Yet the OIG-NYPD still officially determined no evidence of harm after reviewing the gang database. However, the report concedes no individual entrant’s background was investigated to determine whether their inclusion was detrimental to external living factors like housing or employment.
Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) Deputy Director Josmar Trujillo also pointed out that the report does not examine the database’s effects at the federal prosecution level.
“[The inspector general’s] oversight is just over the NYPD and they may say [prosecutors are] beyond their scope, but gang policing is a collaboration of multiple agencies,” said Trujillo. “If you only look at what the NYPD is doing, you’re going to [be] limited to just looking at that tip of the iceberg and not the entire iceberg.”
While the simple inclusion on the database is arguably benign in a nutshell, presumed gang members are prone to federal racketeering charges intended for organized crime. Trujillo said the Black and brown entrants who overwhelmingly populate the database are usually from low-income communities and rely on public defenders to fight the 1970 RICO Act, designed to prosecute mobsters—who can employ high-level lawyers.
The offices of local and regional prosecutors were consulted for the report.
Advocates were also critical of the investigation’s prolonged timespan. They say they proposed this review back in 2017. It officially started a year later and hit multiple roadblocks, including an initial promise last spring for a 2022 release. Posada said the OIG-NYPD consulted him and Legal Aid for the investigation pre-pandemic.
“It gives the police department ample time to change their systems, or to find other ways to keep the information under different headings,” he said. “Three years go by, it’s not going to be the same. It’s not gonna reflect what that system is actually doing.”
White people make up just .6% of the gang database, despite federal officials identifying white supremacists as the “greatest domestic threat” to the U.S. in 2021.
“It is not something that is producing public safety, which is what is mentioned to justify its existence,” Posada said of the database. “Rather, it is being used as a weapon to criminalize [and continue] this narrative that Black and brown people are criminal and who they associate with makes them guilty. We don’t see that same approach applied to students at fraternities.
“They have their own codes, they have their own signs. They fit all the criteria that the NYPD itself is using to label people as gang members.”
But Trujillo said balancing out the disparities by entering more non-Black and brown people to the registry is not a viable solution.
“It’s just night and day the difference between what the laws were designed for and how they’re used now against Black and Hispanic men and women,” he said. “That power in the hands of the NYPD will never bring justice to people, so I would not want to add more white people [to] the database, because it doesn’t solve the problem of what the NYPD is doing.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.