Invasion of Privacy, Misinformation and Broken Laws Permeate California Gang Database

Thursday, August 18, 2016
California Auditor Elaine Howle

By Nick Cahill, Courthouse News Service


SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California's method of tracking more than 150,000 suspected gang members is rife with state and federal violations and law enforcement groups are infringing on individuals' privacy rights, a state audit revealed Thursday.


In a searing 109-page audit of the CalGang database, a tool used to track alleged gang members and groups, State Auditor Elaine Howle claims CalGang is reeling from a lack of oversight and that law enforcement agencies are adding names to the database without cause.


Plagued by errors and misinformation — 42 children under the age of one were entered into the system — the law enforcement resource's usefulness is waning, Howle said.


"User agencies are tracking some people in CalGang without adequate justification, potentially violating their privacy rights. Further, by not reviewing information as required, CalGang's governance and user agencies have diminished the system's crime-fighting value," the report states.


The report focused on four agencies that actively use the database: Los Angeles Police Department, Santa Ana Police Department, Santa Clara and Sonoma County sheriff's departments.


CalGang information is shared statewide and law enforcement groups say it helps with cross-agency gang investigations and allows them to quickly retrieve information on suspected gang members.


In operation for over 20 years, CalGang has ballooned to more than 150,000 names. Ninety-three percent of the entries are male, and 64 percent are Latino. Officers add names based on identifiers such as tattoos, self-admissions and other criteria mandated by California's Street Terrorism Enforcement Prevention Act.


While CalGang is overseen by two committees with board members elected by their peers, the tool receives no real state oversight.


The absence of state regulation has allowed the committees to operate CalGang in the dark, without transparency or public engagement. Investigators found agencies were adding names and entire gangs without substantiation.


"Specifically, Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Sonoma, which add gangs to the system, were able to demonstrate that only one of the nine gangs we reviewed met the requirements of CalGang policy before entry," the report states.


Loosely adding names and suspected gangs to the database also strays from federal and state privacy guidelines, Howle said.


"In practice we found little evidence that the committee and the board have ensured that user agencies comply with either the federal regulations or state guidelines," her report states.


Auditors reviewed 100 names in CalGang and found that 13 individuals were included without adequate support. If that percentage is applied to the entire database, more than 19,500 people could potentially be misclassified as having gang ties.


The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department added a man to the database even though he stated he wasn't a gang member and was just booked for resisting arrest, the audit details. Regardless, he was entered into CalGang for being "arrested for an offense consistent with gang activity."


Personal data entered into CalGang is supposed to be used strictly for investigative purposes, not by prosecutors or perspective employers. However, the audit found one case where a CalGang printout was given to a jury, and three agencies acknowledged that they use the database for employment or military-related screenings.


"These examples emphasize that inclusion in CalGang has the potential to seriously affect a person's life," Howle said of the importance that CalGang is accurate.


For years, civil rights groups have criticized the database and asked the state to reform it. They claim it's particularly damaging to juveniles added to the list and that law enforcement groups don't allow families to contest CalGang inclusions.


A proposal requiring that adults and juveniles be given notice when they are added to CalGang as well as the opportunity to contest inclusion is currently moving through the state Legislature.


Assembly Bill 2298, by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, is vigorously opposed by law enforcement groups but faces a final state Senate vote this month before moving to Gov. Jerry Brown. Groups supporting AB 2298 include the American Civil Liberties Union of California and the Urban Peace Institute.


The scathing CalGang audit proves that the troubled database needs reform, according ACLU police practices director Peter Bibring.


"Today's state audit confirms what communities have known for years — that CalGang is an ineffective tool full of inaccuracies that results in violations of people's rights," Bibring said in a statement.


The audit recommends that legislators transfer regulatory control of CalGang to the California Department of Justice, as well as periodic audits of the system.


Sonoma was the only agency to disagree with Howle's findings, claiming that it has met or exceeded CalGang statutory requirements. Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas also criticized the auditors for having never previously audited a criminal intelligence database.


"The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office's administration of CalGang has always been appropriate and lawful. Despite the report's title, which suggests a potential for privacy rights violations statewide, the audit did not unearth any factual privacy violations by the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office," Freitas said in a response letter.


To Learn More:

            The CalGang Criminal Intelligence System (California State Auditor) (pdf)

Music Is Not a Crime: Judge Tosses Gang Charges Against Rapper (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Judges Slap Down Overreach of Orange County's Anti-Gang Injunction (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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