Inspector General Finds Chicago Gang Database Outdated, Inaccurate and Damaging



Chicago police do not have proper standards in place to ensure the accuracy of the gang data they collect and share with more than 500 agencies, according to a Thursday report from the city’s inspector general.

The report released by the office of Joe Ferguson, the inspector general for the city of Chicago, highlighted major concerns regarding the lack of accuracy and transparency in the Chicago Police Department’s so-called “gang database.” Immigration officials, education agencies and the FBI accessed the database more than a million times over the last decade, the report said, though the community has long scrutinized it for being outdated and inaccurate.

“Our review concluded that CPD’s current gang information systems present certain risks that, if left unaddressed, will continue to undermine public trust and confidence in the police and, because of the broad perception and the lived experience of many, that the current system causes significant collateral consequences for individuals and communities,” the report stated.

The report noted that police in the last 20 years identified more than 134,200 people as gang members after arresting them, usually for petty crimes. But 15,000 of those entries did not list people’s gang membership or explain why they were listed as gang members. Nearly 1,000 people were listed with multiple genders, 80 people were entered as 0 years old, 90 had a birthdate before 1901 and thousands were identified as gang members despite not being arrested or accused of a crime.

The so-called database raised concerns about how police officers perceive the community, citing entries where officers entered occupations for individuals that included ‘scum bag,’ ‘bum,’ ‘black’ and ‘turd.’

The report also said 91.3% of the more than 134,200 people in the database were black and Latinx men. Ferguson said inaccuracies in the database could adversely affect their lives, especially because of how many outside agencies have viewed the records. In lawsuits and hearingspeople have alleged that federal immigration enforcement targeted them or that they lost job prospects because the database wrongly named them.

Ferguson also mentioned that the so-called database raised concerns about how police officers perceive the community, citing entries where officers entered occupations for individuals that included “scum bag,” “bum,” “black” and “turd.” The inspector general said those entries demonstrate how the database “can be employed to demean and dehumanize members of the public.”

“Community members reported personal accounts to [Ferguson] in which their experiences of CPD’s ‘gang database’-related strategies ― including misidentification, harassment, obstacles to immigration, and racial profiling ― furthered the historical divide between themselves and the police and contributed to inequities, especially in communities of color,” the report stated.

Ferguson said Chicago police have used at least 18 different forms, data warehouses and computer platforms to collect and store gang information since 2009. But the information is commonly known as the “gang database” because of the department’s lists of people deemed to be gang members.

As ProPublica has extensively reported, those lists are filled with errors, and getting a name removed is nearly impossible.

Ferguson’s office made 30 recommendations to Chicago police, including regularly reviewing inaccurate and outdated entries, establishing audits for external agencies, issuing public reports on the police department’s managing of gang-related data, and notifying people when they have been designated.

The inspector general said Chicago police agreed with much of the report’s findings and acknowledged that the system needs to be updated. But police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told Ferguson in a letter that his department will not destroy the database, nor will it get rid of all records of gang membership.

“Given the unique gang violence issues that have existed and evolved for generations in Chicago, maintaining gang information and intelligence is a vital part of CPD’s anti-violence efforts,” Johnson said. 

Chicago police say they’re currently reforming their Criminal Enterprise Database and will write clearer standards and implement an appeals option for people listed in the database.

I’m going to get rid of it as soon as is practical. And we’re not going to set up an alternative until we have a real process for transparency that the public can see.
Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot

Lori Lightfoot, the former police oversight leader who just won the city’s mayoral election, told the Chicago Sun-Times last week that she plans to eventually abolish the database.

“I’m going to get rid of it as soon as is practical,” she said. “And we’re not going to set up an alternative until we have a real process for transparency that the public can see. And it has to have a bona fide law enforcement purpose, and not just throwing names into a database without any real policy and practical regulation on who gets in and who stays.”

The city’s database is only one of Illinois’ lists of supposed gang members. Illinois State Police also has a database of more than 90,000 people deemed gang members as of last year. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office had a wonky gang database of 25,000 people called the Regional Gang Intelligence Database, but the county board voted in February to destroy it after a ProPublica report said hundreds of people were listed as dead or had a gang listing of “unknown.”

View the Chicago inspector general’s report below:





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