Chicago Discards the Gang Database

October 19, 2023

With CPD relieved of a vital mechanism to fight crime, gangs will march across Chicago

On September 7, 2023, Chicago’s interim Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA) voted down a plan for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to inaugurate a modernized gang database. A unanimous vote of the seven-member CCPSA, by casting ballots against CPD maintaining any record of gang members, the panel overseeing CPD has hamstrung police power in the fight against gang crime and made law-abiding residents considerably less safe.

The apogee of a six-year battle waged by a coalition of community groups and Chicago’s anti-police movement, the campaign to end CPD’s gang database began in earnest in 2017 with protests alleging the gang directory was flawed and portrayed minorities as wholly responsible for the city’s stupefying violence. Following two years of obnoxious, overwrought sneering from community activists, the then-Inspector General for the City of Chicago, Joe Ferguson, completed a sweeping review of the gang database.

In his findings, Ferguson lambasted carelessness with which the index had been maintained, described a system riddled with poor quality control, and detailed anomalies in the database, particularly the ages of several individuals entered into the register. Ferguson’s report, though filled with some insignificant and weighty details, did do damage: It revealed 95 percent of the 134,242 names entered on police computers were either black or Hispanic. Though Ferguson’s conclusion did not explicitly state the catalog of names compiled by police was racist, in his typical sloppy way, it explicitly implied race was a stark factor in the forging of gang data.

Fodder for the anti-police movement’s propaganda mills, Ferguson’s verdict on the gang database sparked another wave of howling and white-hot denunciations from activists and community groups. Demands which grew so loud they drew the support of some aldermen, lawmakers intervening in the matter and siding with activists led to another blow to police efforts to confront gangs: Chicago leaders caved to community groups and discontinued use of its Strategic Subject List, a predictive policing strategy which professed to identify individuals expected to be involved in crime. A tool which had demonstrated some mixed results, months after the Strategic Subject List was shelved, the new system to succeed the gang database, the Criminal Enterprise Information System, was rolled out. Though the new format was supported by Interim Superintendent Charles Beck, after being greeted with crushing public criticism, approval for the new network was deferred until the creation of the CCPSA and then rejected by the panel.

Though the end of the database removes a proven police device in the fight against gang crime, the rationale behind its demise is it further leads to unjust surveillance and criminalization of minorities and trespasses on civil liberties. With the falsehoods and distortions created to question the efficacy and purity of the existence of a gang database, it will be helpful to clarify precisely how databases came into existence and explain its high value to CPD.

Concerns about gang activity and the need to watch gangs attentively is neither new nor is it the invention of CPD. To fully grasp the historical importance of keeping records on criminals, one must return to Victorian England.

By the late 1860s, anxieties were voiced across England’s major cities where, as now, most gang members were young men, and gangs were overwhelmingly concentrated in districts already blighted by poverty and unemployment. With British newspapers full of alarming reports of rising levels of urban crime, urgent calls for decisive government action followed. In response to the calls, extensive information about criminals’ physical characteristics and backgrounds was regularly collected and tabulated by the Met Police.

Over a century later, as the scourge of gang violence grew in Chicago, city leaders and CPD saw the need for the creation of a formal database to track gang members. A vast body of intelligence maintained to monitor the behavior and nefarious activities of gang members, the information — an individual’s name, “street names,” physical markings, known addresses, locations at which gangs operate — was kept for the purpose of information gathering and to aid in the management and direction of CPD's anti-gang strategy.

The database provided police with a familiarity of individuals known or suspected with an affiliation with a gang. Once registered in the database, the information on known gang members enabled CPD to swiftly search for a suspect in the wake of a crime police investigators were able to establish as gang related. Though the return of a name based on even incomplete information neither assured probable cause nor demonstrated proof beyond reasonable doubt, it was, however, the first and often the most critical step in building a criminal case. Alongside the gang database, CPD also created and trained specialized units and joined with social services to confront the menace of gang violence.

Although over the last two decades the database became an indispensable mechanism for CPD to follow gang footprints, its use coincided with the rise of a social justice grievance culture. The emergence of the anti-police movement was accompanied by intense criticism of police from its partisans. A movement which draws power from its unique ability to torment, its values system regards Chicago’s institutions with utter contempt, particularly Chicago Police.

As the anti-police movement burgeoned, it began to exercise influence over politicians who feared their wrath. Proving they could be every bit as fanatical as they were resourceful, the anti-police movement found success at chipping away at police authority, mainly through the invention of the fiction of “police violence,” delegitimizing police as homicidal maniacs, or assailing police anti-crime strategy or technology to assist the fight against crime as racist.

While an astonishing 80 percent of violence on Chicago’s streets is created by gangs — indiscriminate shootings, revenge killings, ambush killings or assassinations of rivals — it is odd the president of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, Anthony Driver, insists the gang database is an ineffective device to confront crime. A Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizer, Driver’s opposition to the gang database rests on several preposterous claims, all of which are worthy of examination. One of the strongest advocates of eliminating the database, Driver declared the database “very racist and discriminatory,” claiming the gang directory “directly harmed people” and stripped documented gang members of “their basic dignity.”

A man with a consistent record of apologetics for criminals, it is worth contrasting Mr. Driver’s characterizations of the database against the utility of the gang database.

While most are led to believe the gang database functions as a mechanism to bedevil and persecute minority groups, the database is merely one cog in CPD’s comprehensive anti-gang strategy. Far from police haphazardly cobbling together a list of names and gang affiliations, the plan to prevail over gangs relied in part on community outreach. Part of a broad, robust, and balanced strategy, CPD possessing a vast repository of intelligence on gangs helped prevent retaliatory violence among gangs. For example: With the very core of gang violence surrounding territorial disputes, assassinations, or raids on drug houses, gang violence often invites retaliation. When a gang war ignites, police armed with insight furnished by the gang database can identify potential targets for reprisal to dissuade them from engaging in revenge killings.

After the turn of the century, under the superintendency of Garry McCarthy, CPD adjusted its anti-gang strategy slightly to incorporate technology. By analyzing intelligence amassed into the gang database, police identified gang members who had an elevated probability of either engaging in or becoming the victims of gang-related shootings. Known as the “custom notification” program, when CPD was supplied with these findings, a team comprised of a CPD officer, a probation or parole officer, and a social worker would visit these individuals to warn them of the elevated risks they faced on the streets. A pivotal feature of the visit with the at-risk individual was a social worker with the offer of government-funded services — employment, housing, counseling — which could potentially lure them from gang life.

The CCPSA gutted Chicago Police anti-gang strategy

The Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability’s decision to do away with the CPD’s gang database does not simply remove a moderately useful tool in the fight against gang crime in Chicago. Conversely, by discarding the gang database, CCPSA ravaged the Chicago Police Department’s entire anti-gang strategy.

With the demise of the gang database effectively rendering CPD powerless against gangs, it is essential to highlight Mr. Driver’s claims on the basic attributes of the database itself. Though the gang database did have its flaws, inaccuracies are not uncommon whatsoever in data entry. Similarly, it is important to note some errors in the database are the result of criminal duplicity: Most data entered into the database is self-reported by arrestees during processing by police or information gleaned during interviews with police investigators. Accused criminals with a gang affiliation are acutely aware details of their criminal activities or physical attributes will be utilized by police to identify or locate them in criminal inquiries. Gang members routinely offer misleading details or offer outright dishonest answers during interviews with CPD.

Mr. Driver, however, does not seem to account for either honest human error or criminal cunning. Rather, Driver appears to insist the errors were deliberate, and entered for the dual purpose of oppressing minorities and stigmatizing young minority men for a lifetime. A ridiculous charge, Driver, it seems, speaks as if only white males with sinister intent and with a deep animus for minorities are at the steering wheel of anti-gang strategy.

Moreover, Driver asserts “racism” runs like a dark seam through the gang database. A patently absurd charge, while the vast majority of entries into the gang database are either black or Hispanic, a cursory glance at crime statistics plainly demonstrates a substantial percentage of violent gang crime occurs in predominantly minority neighborhoods. Driver, unsurprisingly, sees no connection between the location of incidents of violent crime and the demographic groups which constitute the database.

Among his other specious indictments of the gang database, Driver is adamant the gang database deprived those entered into the database of a “basic dignity,” and employment opportunities. An irrational allegation, Driver seems unaware of that fact the gang database is accessible only to verified law-enforcement agencies and not made available for pre-employment background checks, much less open for viewing to the general public. Moreover, gang members entered into the registry seeking employment in the neighborhoods in which they live find themselves unsuitable for jobs due to an undesirable reputation earned from their deliberate involvement in criminal activity or active membership in gangs.

The foundation for the end of the gang database is built on scandalous myths, half-truths, and whole cloth. The latest victory Chicago’s anti-police movement has scored over Chicago Police, the push to end the gang database follows prohibitions placed on monitoring social media accounts of suspected gang members, restrictions to police foot-and-vehicle chase policy, limitations on CPD use of force, or branding anti-crime technology racist. More broadly, this is a war on public order: Rogue prosecutors in office, decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses, juvenile crime excused, and lawmakers publicly pouring scorn on Chicago Police.

Given the brutality meted out by gangs — gang violence accounts for 80 percent of Chicago’s jarring crime — it is baffling Mr. Driver fails to see the advantages a gang database affords to CPD. Contrary to what Chicago’s far-Left fear-mongers would have you believe, the gang database was one dispassionate, lawful engine in an extensive anti-gang policy. Now resting at the top of a scrap heap, Chicago Police are denied a vital tool and an important line of defense in the battle against violent crime.

Chicago’s gangs rule the streets. By gutting the gang database, Driver and his CCPSA associates are inviting gangs to own Chicago politics.

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