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Department of Investigation Confirms Probe of NYPD Gang Database After Advocates Rally

Members of the Grassroots Advocates for Neighborhood Groups & Solutions coalition protest outside of the NYPD’s inspector general’s office in Lower Manhattan, July 27, 2021.
Members of the Grassroots Advocates for Neighborhood Groups & Solutions coalition protest outside of the NYPD’s inspector general’s office in Lower Manhattan, July 27, 2021.
Eileen Grench/THE CITY

On Tuesday morning, a coalition of anti-surveillance advocates and public defenders gathered in front of the NYPD’s Inspector General’s office to demand — once again — an investigation into cops’ gang database.

On Tuesday evening, the city Department of Investigation told THE CITY that it started a probe of the infamous Criminal Group Database three years ago — and that the job is nearly complete.

“DOI has an ongoing examination on the NYPD’s gang database, which began in 2018, and is now in its final stages,” said Diane Struzzi, a Department of Investigation spokesperson.

“This is an ongoing matter and DOI declines to provide further details at this time,” she added.

For years, legal groups and criminal justice activists have been seeking an end to the database — or at least add some transparency in its use.

In April, the New York City Bar Association sent a letter to NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure “urging his office to investigate how the [gang database] is compiled and used, and to issue a public report on those findings.” That followed Human Rights Watch and dozens of other groups demanding the same in September 2020.

The DOI hadn’t previously publicly confirmed opening an investigation into the gang files.

Getting Branded

At the Tuesday rally in Lower Manhattan, the Grassroots Advocates for Neighborhood Groups & Solutions (GANGS) coalition called for the end to what members characterized as the “digital stop-and-frisk” of Black and brown New Yorkers.

The NYPD’s Criminal Group Database is currently estimated to hold records on 17,500 to 42,000 New Yorkers, some as young as 13-years-old.

Nearly everyone in the database are people of color, then-NYPD Chief Dermot Shea said during a City Council hearing held in 2018, the year before he was appointed police commissioner.

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea speaks in The Bronx about monthly crime statistics, Dec. 5, 2019.
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea speaks in The Bronx about monthly crime statistics, Dec. 5, 2019.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Many at the rally noted that white supremacists and mafia figures apparently are not in the database.

“By using invasive surveillance technologies to create networks of social affiliation, the so-called gang database criminalizes Black and brown New Yorkers for what they wear, where they live, and how they express themselves,” Aly Panjwani, of the nonprofit Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said at the rally.

He called the gang database “a continuation of decades of policy that throws resources at broken policing and constant monitoring as opposed to the investment our communities need and deserve.”

In a statement emailed to THE CITY, Sergeant Edward Riley, a police spokesperson, said that inclusion in the database can be based on “self-admission” of gang membership either to police or through social media posts — or identification as a gang member by “two independent and reliable sources.”

New Yorkers can also be added if any two of the following apply: “frequent presence at a known gang location;” “association with known gang members;” “frequent wearing of [gang] colors” and “frequent use of hand signs associated with a particular gang.”

A specific set of officers decides who gets added to the database, according to Riley.

“We are in the era of precision policing,” he wrote. “Saturating the database with non-gang members limits its usefulness.”

A Growing Record

According to reporting by The Intercept in 2018, the database grew by over 70% during the de Blasio administration — adding an average of 342 New Yorkers per month.

There is no current way to protest one’s inclusion in New York’s database. The only ways to find out if you’re on it is if you are in court or through a Freedom of Information Law request.

Advocates at the rally said repercussions of inclusion in the database included harassment by cops, higher bail, tougher sentencing, as well as difficulty with finding housing and employment, and dealing with immigration issues.

“By othering these primarily young and Black and Latinx people with ‘gang’ labels, the NYPD, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials excuse abuse, undermine the presumption of innocence, and derail the lives of countless New Yorkers,” said Maryanne Kaishian, lawyer at Brooklyn Defender Services.

Investigations of a similar database in Chicago showed a litany of “deeply flawed” practices by its police department, and a look into Los Angeles’ database even led to the criminal prosecution of some cops for falsifying records.

Still, Shea characterized the database as necessary in an interview with NY1 this month, lamenting attempts to clamp down on certain policing tactics.

“In the past year we’ve had to push back on the City Council asking us to get rid of the database on gangs. We’ve been asked not to stop cars, don’t interview kids when they’re arrested,” he said. “At a time when people should be coming to us and saying ‘What do you need?’”

‘My Son Was on the List’

Beverly MacFarlane, president of the residency council at the Taft Houses in East Harlem, said at Tuesday’s rally that the database hit home hard when she witnessed a 2016 NYPD gang sweep that took in dozens of young residents. Many of the youths, she said, were at most guilty by association.

But it wasn’t until GANGS coalition organizer Victor Dempsey encouraged her and other residents to file Freedom of Information Law requests for their own records, that she would find her own son among the many names in the database.

Beverly MacFarlane speaks at rally across the street from the NYPD Inspector General’s offices at 80 Maiden Lane in Manhattan, July 27, 2021.
Beverly MacFarlane speaks at rally across the street from the NYPD Inspector General’s offices at 80 Maiden Lane in Manhattan, July 27, 2021.

“I am a working mother, 38 years for the city, and my son was on that list,” she yelled at the Tuesday rally, rejecting the megaphone.

“It’s very important to erase this,” she said.

Josmar Trujillo, of the GANGS coalition, told THE CITY that he hopes that the DOI report will come out before Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office Dec. 31. He noted that Democratic mayoral candidate Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police captain, has expressed support of “precision policing” tactics.

“If they’re saying it’s in the final stages, that’s good,” said Trujillo. “We’re hoping and maybe they’re also thinking that the end of this administration might be the last chance to get this out. “

De Blasio’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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