Article: Still Some Bugs in California’s Database of Gang Members

About the CalGang Database

For over two decades, California law enforcement agencies have been compiling CalGang, a massive state-funded database designed as a shared criminal intelligence resource for local law enforcers. At last count, it identified over 150,000 persons as gang members or gang associates.

But a harshly critical audit of the database, requested by the state legislature and performed by the state auditor’s office, recently found reasons for skepticism as to the information’s accuracy and the system’s legality.

Inaccuracies and Privacy Violations

For example, one much-noted finding of the audit report was that 42 persons in the CalGang database were listed, at the time entered, as being younger than one year old. In addition, the audit also revealed that 28 of those 42 supposed gang members were listed as eligible for inclusion because they had admitted they were part of a gang – making them precocious not just in their criminal tendencies, but also in their communications skills.

California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement Prevention Act sets criteria for how participating law enforcement agencies can enter someone into the database, including self-admissions and gang tattoos or clothing. According to the auditor’s report, 93% of current entries are male, and nearly two-thirds (64%) are Hispanic.

Besides becoming less useful due to inaccuracies, the auditor’s report cautioned, the database frequently violates state and federal privacy and other laws. The audit report found some individuals, and even some entire gangs, were entered into the database without justification.

Some entries remained in the system even after those records should have been purged (five years, unless the individual triggers a new listing — although some entries were shown as good for 100 years). And despite a state law, which took effect early in 2014, requiring notice to parents when their children are entered in the system, those notices are frequently not given out, the report also found.

The 109-page audit report focused on four law enforcement agencies actively using the database, the city police departments in Los Angeles and Santa Ana, and the sheriff’s departments for Santa Clara and Sonoma counties. Of the nine gangs added to the database by those agencies, only one met proper inclusion criteria. In a random sample of 100 individual database entries made by those agencies, 13 were found to have been made improperly.

Needed Changes Are Coming to the CalGang Database

Lack of oversight for the database’s operations was another problem identified in the auditor’s report. The auditor’s report called for moving control of the database, which now consists mostly of self-regulation by participating agencies, to the state Department of Justice, and requiring audits at regular intervals.

A bill (AB 2298) offered by a San Diego Assemblywoman, who claimed local police wanted to add her son to the CalGang database even though he had not committed any crime, was backed by civil liberty and immigrant organizations but opposed by law enforcement groups.

Near the finish of the state’s legislative session at the end of August, legislators approved a modified version of the bill, sending it on to Gov. Brown, who signed it on September 28. So once it takes effect in about a year, AB 2298 will require notice to all individuals being added to the database, and provide an appeals process.