Sus­pect Sus­pects

Newsweek International - - NEWSWEEK - JOSH SAUL

By scrap­ping its gang data­base, is Port­land putting po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness above public safety?

coat—and not by the fash­ion po­lice. The au­thor­i­ties stopped him on his way home from work and thought he was in a gang. Or so the man re­al­ized af­ter po­lice in Port­land, Ore­gon, sent him a let­ter say­ing they’d added him to a list of known gang mem­bers.

“I did tell the cops that

I use[d] to bang,” the man wrote in a 2015 ap­peal let­ter ob­tained by Newsweek (his name was redacted from it). “But I am no longer ac­tive and…[am try­ing] to get my life straighten[ed] out and take care of my two kids…. I should not have to stop wear[ing] my coat (that keeps me warm) for peo­ple not to dis­crim­i­nate against me.”

He isn’t the only one com­plain­ing. For about three decades, po­lice de­part­ments have used data­bases to keep track

of sus­pected gang mem­bers, of­ten shar­ing their lists with Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agents, who tar­get those on the list for de­por­ta­tion. Po­lice of­fi­cials say the data­bases help de­tec­tives quickly de­ter­mine which wit­nesses or sus­pects they should fo­cus on af­ter a vi­o­lent crime, iden­tify ri­val gangs that might be re­spon­si­ble and build larger cases—whether it’s gun­run­ning or hu­man traf­fick­ing—by mak­ing con­nec­tions be­tween street-level crooks and king­pins.

But crit­ics say the lists are overly broad and lead to ra­cial pro­fil­ing. They not only in­clude peo­ple who aren’t in gangs; they also make it hard for for­mer gang mem­bers to get a job or find a place to live. Last year, a report from the Cal­i­for­nia state au­di­tor found the state’s data­base was im­prop­erly used for job screen­ings and po­ten­tially vi­o­lated pri­vacy rights. It was also in­ac­cu­rate. Among other blun­ders, it in­cluded 42 peo­ple who were ba­bies when the au­thor­i­ties la­beled them as gang mem­bers.

In Septem­ber, the Port­land Po­lice Bureau be­came what ap­pears to be the first de­part­ment to an­nounce it would stop com­pil­ing or us­ing its gang data­base. The move, says po­lice Cap­tain Mike Krantz, a for­mer mem­ber of the bureau’s gang task force, was a way to re­build trust with city res­i­dents, es­pe­cially blacks and Lati­nos, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ately rep­re­sented on the list. (Port­land was 76 per­cent white in the lat­est cen­sus; last year, The Ore­go­nian dis­cov­ered that 77 per­cent of the 359 peo­ple in the city’s gang data­base were black or Latino.) Re­build­ing that trust is im­por­tant be­cause it’s key to re­duc­ing crime, ac­cord­ing to re­cent stud­ies and De­part­ment of Jus­tice re­ports.

The gang data­base is also no longer nec­es­sary, Krantz and other ob­servers say. In re­cent decades, ad­vances in crime lab tech­nol­ogy have al­lowed au­thor­i­ties to quickly an­a­lyze bal­lis­tic ev­i­dence from shoot­ings and iden­tify the peo­ple in­volved—with­out us­ing the con­tro­ver­sial list. Jef­frey Wen­nar, a for­mer gang prose­cu­tor in Mary­land and now the le­gal coun­sel for the Na­tional Al­liance of Gang In­ves­ti­ga­tors As­so­ci­a­tion, says keep­ing lists of sus­pected gang mem­bers can lead to lazy in­ves­ti­ga­tions. “Go back to the movie Casablanca, where he says, ‘Round up the usual sus­pects,’” he says. “That’s too broad an ap­proach.”

Other de­part­ments will be watch­ing as Port­land’s plan goes into ef­fect Oc­to­ber 15. Some of them main­tain that gang data­bases still help de­tec­tives make con­nec­tions be­tween shoot­ers and vic­tims, for ex­am­ple, and should be used so long as the au­thor­i­ties pro­tect civil lib­er­ties. “The cor­re­la­tion of gang vi­o­lence and gun vi­o­lence is very high,” Meena Har­ris, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Gang Cen­ter, which is funded by the De­part­ment of Jus­tice, wrote in an email.

A Chicago Po­lice De­part­ment de­tec­tive put his thoughts on Port­land’s move more bluntly. “What a joke,” he tells Newsweek via text, ask­ing for anonymity be­cause he wasn’t au­tho­rized to speak to the press.

One draw­back, Wen­nar and Krantz ac­knowl­edge, is the loss of gang statis­tics, which can alert po­lice to when groups grow or start com­mit­ting new crimes. “We un­der­stand it’s go­ing to hurt us a lit­tle,” Krantz says.

But both say the risks posed by Port­land’s de­ci­sion are worth the po­ten­tial re­wards. Be­cause gangs don’t have clearly de­fined mem­ber­ship, peo­ple who live in a neigh­bor­hood with a lot of gang ac­tiv­ity, or have fam­ily or friends in a gang, can end up on the list, says Peter Bib­ring, an at­tor­ney for the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Which is why Krantz be­lieves his city’s new pol­icy will en­cour­age res­i­dents to work with the au­thor­i­ties and help them stop gangs like the Bloods, Crips and Hoovers.

As for the man in the flan­nel coat whom the po­lice stopped in 2015, it seems he al­ready has stood up— at least for him­self. Later that year, he won his ap­peal, and the po­lice re­moved him from their data­base.

SUS­PECT BE­HAV­IOR Crit­ics say gang data­bases are overly broad and make it hard for for­mer gang mem­bers to get a job or find a place to live.

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