California Police Are Falsely Labeling People As Gang Members. It’s Part of a Bigger Crisis.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore. Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

California’s gang database, CalGang, contains anywhere from 90,000 to 150,000 names, many belonging to people who aren’t gang members at all. A haphazard approach to inclusion is at the root of this controversy: Police can add you because you gave a suspected gang member a ride in your car, for example, or grabbed lunch with them, or falsely claimed gang membership as a way to shield yourself from violence in a neighborhood where being unaffiliated is perilous. And the legal consequences can be steep. People labeled as gang members face harsher sentencing guidelines in criminal trials and can be subjected to gang injunctions, which are basically restraining orders that make otherwise legal activities — walking down a certain street, wearing certain colors, interacting with certain people — illegal and subject to criminal prosecution.

The database is roughly 90 percent people of color (who comprise 45 percent of the state’s population) and is notoriously opaque. Before reforms were enacted in 2017, only minors were required to be notified when they were added to it, and a process for getting a name removed — if you were lucky enough to know it was there in the first place — had been nonexistent and remains arduous to this day. (Your name would have been deleted automatically only if your file hadn’t been updated in five years — but police could “update” it simply by seeing and stopping you in an area where gangs were known to operate.)

Over CalGang’s more than two decades of operation, officials have defended it by praising its usefulness and integrity. They say it provides crucial information for criminal investigations — it’s largely a ready-made list of suspects, potential informants, and witnesses, after all — and can be accessed only by “specifically trained law-enforcement officers and support staff.” It cannot, they insist, be used to screen people for employment purposes or immigration status, a claim the public has few concrete means of verifying. It’s a convenient feature of CalGang that believing in its putative limitations and pure intentions (and the veracity of the ways California police designate gang membership in general) hinges almost entirely on whether you’re willing to trust that law-enforcement officials, when presented with a powerful, opaque, and largely unaccountable surveillance tool, will simply choose to do the right thing.

This week, the Los Angeles Police Department went a long way toward affirming the concerns of the system’s skeptics. The L.A. Times reported on Monday that several officers with the city’s Metropolitan Division — an “elite” cadre that includes the LAPD SWAT team — are being investigated by the department for falsifying field-interview cards, the bureaucratic precursor to being added to CalGang, and labeling non–gang members as gang members in an effort to boost the officers’ “stop” statistics. The scheme was uncovered in early 2019 when the LAPD notified a woman living in the San Fernando Valley that her son had been officially designated as a gang member; she contacted a local police-station supervisor to dispute the allegation, prompting a review of the body-camera footage from her son’s stop. It turned out that the information the officer had used to draw this conclusion was fabricated, according to the Times, which led to a wider investigation that found multiple officers were doing the same thing. Three of these officers were suspended this week, and investigations into others remain ongoing. The Valley woman’s son, meanwhile, had his gang designation rescinded.

It’s unclear whether the names of the people these officers had designated as gang members were specifically added to CalGang — though it seems likely, since the database is the most centralized, widely used system into which a person could be uploaded and then officially notified from. In any case, the revelations demonstrate the staggering latitude the police possess to mark people as criminals and unleash upon them all of that label’s attendant consequences. And this problem is not limited to Los Angeles: New York City boasts its own version of CalGang in the NYPD gang database, which ensnares non–gang members with similar abandon and has ballooned of late with more than 70,000 new names added since 2014. The enthusiastic use of these systems belies the inconclusiveness of their law-enforcement merits. Many of their functions remain cloaked in secrecy.

For every story about an investigation that police solved because a nickname overheard by a rape victim happened to match one in CalGang and led to an arrest, there’s a countering experience like that of Aaron Harvey, who was prosecuted for conspiracy to commit murder in 2014 for supposedly benefitting from a shooting in San Diego — hundreds of miles from his home at the time, Las Vegas — which had been committed by members of a gang that police had falsely accused him of belonging to. Injunctions like those justified by using information in CalGang can reduce gang violence in the short term within specific geographic confines, but they do so primarily by relocating it. A 2009 report in the Michigan Review of Race and Law found that injunctions were often accompanied by spikes in violence in neighboring areas where the injunction didn’t apply.

Potential solutions to the system’s overreach are many. The burden of proof for inclusion in such databases could be much higher, their contents and uses could be more transparent, and the process for having one’s name removed could be much easier. But none of these address the fundamental concerns: first, that gang membership is a socioeconomic issue that cannot be solved through law enforcement; and second, that police across the country have responded to being seen as the de facto solution to a range of social ills (by lawmakers and voters alike) by expanding ad infinitum their standards for who can be labeled as a criminal, to the point of lying outright to criminalize more people. Police criteria for designating gang membership and affiliation have become so sprawling as to be often meaningless. It’s a crisis that dogs law-enforcement efforts on both coasts and likely in many places in between. The LAPD investigation reveals the true function of such an approach: giving police more power to mark primarily black and brown people — who are often guilty of little more than living in neighborhoods left in dire straits by government abuse and neglect — for surveillance, condemnation, and criminalization. If this is what passes for enhancing public safety, it’s worth asking ourselves if the price is too steep.

If the Police Say You’re a Gang Member, You’re a Gang Member