Home Local As Chicago police prepare to relaunch ‘gang database,’ concerns remain the tool could unfairly sweep up many

As Chicago police prepare to relaunch ‘gang database,’ concerns remain the tool could unfairly sweep up many

by staff

Critics remain concerned by the Chicago Police Department’s impending relaunch of its much-criticized “gang database,” a tool intended to identify people with connections to street gangs, even after the process to revamp it was paused last fall at the behest of the city’s new police oversight committee.

The department’s prior version of the database was widely criticized by community groups, the city’s inspector general and targeted in a federal lawsuit for allegedly being unconstitutional and racially biased, with Blacks and Latinos making up the majority of those on the list.

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The new tracking system, known as the Criminal Enterprise Information System or CEIS is meant to “collect and manage information on criminal enterprises and street gangs to prevent, detect and investigate criminal activity,” according to a draft of the police policy on it. The oversight committee requested and received a delay in its implementation last year to gather public comment, which concluded last month.

Critics have said at least 134,000 people were labeled as gang members using the original data collection that had little to no oversight, and those who were labeled were at risk of severe sentencing, high bond, deportation or losing jobs because of it.

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Sheila Bedi, a clinical law professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and a civil rights attorney who was part of the now-settled lawsuit, said the new proposed policy still is “significantly flawed” and will continue to perpetuate the “same types of racial disparities that the (inspector general) documented.”

The Police Department did not make someone available to talk about the policy draft or answer questions, and instead only responded with a statement:

“The Chicago Police Department has been diligently working to finalize and launch the Criminal Enterprise Information System (CEIS). This required extensive vetting of previously collected gang data to ensure all information being inputted into the CEIS is accurate, according to the new, more robust set of criteria,” the statement read.

“We also conducted community engagement on the policy, which included input from community groups, public comment and review of the initial draft policy,” it continued. “CPD has also met with the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability about CEIS and looks forward to further discussions. It’s important that this system is built on fair and constitutional policing, and that the appropriate amount of time is taken to ensure it is aligned with CPD’s commitment to reform.”

A Chicago police spokesperson said they were unable to provide a specific time frame for when the policy will be finalized.

The city’s inspector general made a 117-page report in 2019 that detailed the unreliability of the original data. The report explained how the vast gang information is collected and widely shared, revealing a complicated process in which data is gathered “in at least 18 different forms, records or systems of records” and made available to 500 outside agencies, including federal immigration authorities and the FBI.

The department then pledged to create a new gang database that would be regularly audited and purged. But in 2021, the inspector general made another report that the department had made “minimal progress” toward a fairer and more accurate system.

One of the first priorities of the new oversight committee, Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, was to address the department’s progress on the system.

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But after the commission had its first meeting Sept. 29, the commissioners were told on Oct. 7 that the Police Department would be launching a new database Oct. 28, said Anthony Driver Jr., president of the commission.

Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability Commissioner Anthony Driver Jr. speaks during a board meeting at Kennedy King College in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood on Oct. 27, 2022.

Driver said he immediately sent an email to the department asking them to halt the rollout of the new database, brief the commission and collaborate with them before its release.

“Had we not sent that letter out, I fully expect (the new database) to have been operational. They’ve already trained the entire Police Department on how to use it,” Driver said.

When the commission had the briefing with the Police Department, Driver said the representatives from the department could only answer a quarter of their questions.

“(The Police Department) will generally say it’s for public safety needs, for investigatory purposes. Well, then, when we asked how has this made Chicago safer? How has this database led to harmful people being taken off the streets?,” Driver said. “They have no metrics to judge this thing. It’s all based on basically like a hope and a dream.”

Driver later reached out to the mayor’s office to ask for help, and they agreed to work in a collaborative process, he said. The Police Department then did not respond to multiple requests from Driver until early November when he was told the department would repost the policy on its website for more public comment.

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The commission then called for a public hearing on the policy with the department and inspector general, Driver said.

“We have the hearing, and publicly, they aren’t able to answer any questions,” he said. “We had about 300 folks tune into that meeting. (The Police Department representatives) were very unprepared.”

The commission put out a statement Dec. 7 saying it does not believe the department’s current proposal should be adopted and implemented.

A coalition of civil rights attorneys sent a letter Dec. 21 to city attorneys; Maggie Hickey, the independent monitor in the consent decree process; and Christopher Wells, chief of the office of the Illinois attorney general detailing their “strong objection” to the special order that would create the new Criminal Enterprise Information System.

The order would “present an immediate threat to the consent decree,” due to it violating the decree’s provisions on impartial policing, interactions with youth and community policing provisions, according to the letter.

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Bedi, one of the lawyers who signed the letter, said the city also did not abide by the inspector general’s recommendation that it have a community-based research process to determine if the benefit of designating someone as a gang member outweighs the harm that it can cause.

“We’ve got no justification for engaging in this law enforcement practice that causes a significant amount of harm. There’s no evidence that it creates any additional public safety,” Bedi said. “To the contrary, we’ve got reams of evidence demonstrating how harmful these designations are.”

Bedi was one of the plaintiff attorneys on a 2018 lawsuit that was settled two years later when the city agreed to no longer use its old interface as its basis for identifying whether someone is part of a street gang.

When compared to the old policy, the new policy does establish procedures that someone can take to challenge their designation, but the policy requires someone, who believes they have been wrongly designated a gang member, to go to a Chicago police district and ask for proof that they were designated as a gang member.

“And the idea that somebody who the Chicago Police Department has wrongfully designated as a gang member would walk into a police station and say, ‘Hey, you think I’m a gang member. I’m not really. Give me my paperwork.’ Just sort of ignores the realities of the relationships between CPD and the general public, particularly Black and brown communities that are going to be most affected by this,” Bedi said.

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pfry@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @paigexfry

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