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Civil Rights Group Says D.C. Police Gang Database is Unreliable

A database created by Washington D.C. police to keep track of suspected members of street gangs is rife with unreliable intelligence and is widely distributed with little or no oversight on how the information is used, a coalition of civil rights groups concluded in a report released Tuesday. Police began compiling the database in 2009 to identify more than 100 organized criminal groups. Authorities have described the database, with nearly 2,000 names as of October 2022, as a “secure system” available to a select number of employees with a “legitimate law enforcement purpose.” But a report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and other groups says most people are on the list only because they were spotted associating with a gang member or seen at a gang meeting, and not because of any proven criminality or other criteria, such as displaying gang tattoos or being identified by an informant, the Washington Post reports. In 2020, a lieutenant in the D.C. police intelligence unit wrote of finding “weak/bad validations in the Gang Database” and admonished his staff that “sooner or later the entire unit is going to get burned for this.”

D.C. Police Chief Pamela A. Smith defended the gang database she described as an "investigative tool". She said “arguments, beefs, and retaliation drive homicides and shootings in the District of Columbia,” and that “maintaining an awareness of the affiliations of the people likely to be involved in violence — either as perpetrators or victims — is a critical part of reducing crime in our city.” The criteria deciding gang status include being arrested for an offense that is part of a gang enterprise, displaying gang tattoos, or being identified as a gang member by an informant. However, the report says that three-quarters of the people in the gang database in October 2022 met what the authors contend are the weakest of those criteria: being seen associating with gang members or attending gang meetings. “Criminalizing people by guilt by association does not reduce violence,” said Carlos Andino, an associate council with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and one of the principal investigators on the report. Police, he said, are “using the gang database and its weak criteria to surveil and harass people in the District and outside the District.”


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