By Rhiannon Rashidi
Community organizers and criminal justice advocates from across New York City gathered at the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall on September 7 to protest the NYPD’s controversial gang database, but this was only one demonstration of a fight years in the making. “It is not easy being here every single year, hearing the same stories of family members saying ‘when is the gang database going to end?’” shared Vidal Guzman, a community activist and policy entrepreneur at Next100, with the crowd of protestors and onlookers.
Officially titled The NYPD Criminal Group Database, the gang database “is used as an investigative resource to maintain consistent, up-to-date intelligence regarding criminal groups and street gangs,” according to an Impact and Use Policy Report published by the NYPD in April of 2021. While the NYPD attests that the database is a necessary tool to prevent crime and protect communities, the people of color who live in New York City are telling a different story.
In June of 2018, Dermot Shea, former NYPD Chief of Detectives, testified before the New York City Council and reported that 99 percent of the individuals in the gang database were African American, non-white Hispanic, or Black Hispanic, according to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Before this testimony, little information about the database was available to the public. While transparency regarding the database has increased since 2018, information about the system, and who is named in it, remains inaccessible.
“[The Legal Aid Society] has helped over 500 people submit Freedom of Information Law requests to see if they were labeled as gang involved,” said Anthony Posada, Supervising Attorney of The Legal Aid Society’s Community Justice Unit. “Every single person has been denied.”
An individual can be included in the database through multiple avenues which include self-admission in social media posts, wearing colors affiliated with gang activity, and association with identified gang members. Though activists say that this criterion is arbitrary at best, Shea denies criticisms that the database is a mechanism of racial profiling in both his 2018 opinion piece for the New York Daily News and his similar and directly subsequent testimony before the City Council.
Activists argue that Shea’s proclamations cannot be corroborated because people of color constitute almost all of the list despite the presence of white gangs in New York State. “I’ve been in prison with Aryan Nation brotherhood,” activist Guzman said into the megaphone on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall. “There are white gangs in this state, don’t let police lie to you and say that there isn’t.”
Community organizers and activists, especially from neighborhoods whose predominant population is people of color, say that the gang database enables law enforcement to unreasonably target specific neighborhoods in the city. “I have friends that are from Lincoln Projects, a housing complex near 135 [street], and in a five-year span they had two gang raids and a federal raid,” said Guzman. “Risk of death is not the only unnecessary harm related to militarized raids,” academics Babe Howell and Priscilla Bustamante described in their report on The Bronx 120 Prosecution. “The fear and trauma inflicted on family members and communities by a military-style pre-dawn raid are not justified by the charges [brought against them].”
“You are going to be punished forever for being in this database,” Guzman shared.
The NYPD is at liberty to share the information within the database with law enforcement and city agencies. This concerns New York City residents who fear that if they are picked up during a raid, or arrested for a crime, they can receive higher bail, longer sentences, and even deportation if they are in the database. “When we talk about the gang database, we need to put it in the context of mass incarceration,” said Posada at the protest.
City Council introduced Bill 0360-2022 in May of 2022 which, if made law, would abolish the gang database and prevent a similar successor from being created. As of October 2022, the bill was referred to the Committee on Public Safety, but no further action was taken by the Committee or Council for the bill to become law. “We call on the City Council to pass this bill immediately, to abolish the gang database, because our communities cannot wait any longer,” Posada said at the conclusion of his speech at Brooklyn Borough Hall.
“But City Council [cannot] just sign on to the bill to end the gang database,” Guzman commented on Bill 0360-2022. “There need to be attachments of overall investments to cure violence.” And nearly every activist that spoke at Brooklyn Borough Hall on September 7 echoed Guzman’s words. “We need investments in our humanity and in our dignity; we need investments in our quality education, in our health and well-being, not this [database]” Alexa Avilés, New York City Councilwoman for District 38, said at the protest.
GANGS Coalition is an organization of community advocates dedicated to “dismantling systems” that enable law enforcement to surveil and racially profile individuals and communities in the city. They propose investments in “employment development” and “sustainable housing,” among other public services, as an alternative to gang policing. GANGS Coalition also emphasizes the importance of social inclusion.
“You’ve got Ecuador… who actually started legalizing their gangs, and started working with the gang leaders to establish them as community groups,” Guzman said at the protest.
Ecuador legalized gangs in 2007 and, since then, the homicide rate dropped from, “15.35 murders per 100,000 people in 2011 to about 5 in 2017,” according to a report published by the Inter-American Developmental Bank. “Gangs are inherently social,” the report states. “By [abandoning] the electorally popular idea that all gang members deserve [to be punished], the state instead opted for a long-term strategy of crime reduction that [prioritized] direct engagement.”
Today, activists against current gang policing tactics in New York City argue that Ecuador’s success demonstrates the importance of integrating gangs into efforts to eliminate violence in their communities.
“I think there is a really important part that police officers are missing,” Guzman shared to address misconceptions about the divide between law enforcement and communities with gang presences. “Right now, police are just throwing a band-aid on a bigger issue, and the bigger issue is that the majority of these neighborhoods where the gang database [is being used], and the gang raids are happening, are the neighborhoods where community centers are being closed.”
“We stand with the GANGS Coalition to end this gang database this year,” Darren Mack, co-founder, and co-director of the Urban Justice Center’s Freedom Agenda said to the crowd at Brooklyn Borough Hall. “After that, we want all those resources that the NYPD utilized to operate that system to go back into our community.”