While the city Department of Investigation readies a much-anticipated watchdog report on the NYPD’s database of alleged gang members, a new City Council bill aims to abolish the list.
“It will be a very straightforward bill that would make it so that the gang database will no longer exist,” said its sponsor, Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn).
The coming bill, which Reynoso expects to announce Wednesday at a City Hall rally, will also likely include language to prohibit any such list from being created in the future. The measure will require those on the database to be given the opportunity to request their records before they are destroyed, Reynoso added.
The NYPD gang database is a list of people — almost all of them Black or Latino, the police commissioner has acknowledged — that the Police Department has deemed to be members of a criminal group. Cops have argued that the database is an important tool in so-called precision policing.
Opponents of the database decry it as a virtual dragnet — much like the once widely used practice of stop, question and frisk.
Reynoso, who is the Democratic nominee for Brooklyn borough president, said he began writing the bill after he was approached by advocates, families and academics who work to end surveillance of New Yorkers accused of gang or crew ties — a coalition known as GANGS.
Voice of Experience
Afrika Owes, a current Fordham Law student and member of the coalition, knows first-hand the consequences of being labeled a gang member in court.
Owes was swept up in a Harlem gang raid in 2011, though she contends she was never part of a gang. In the decade since her return to her neighborhood after six months of incarceration, she has had no police interactions and has received broad community support.
Her record was wiped clear, after she pleaded guilty to conspiracy and another charge. But because of past media coverage, she continues to be asked to explain her past at every step of her life, she told THE CITY.
“When you come home and you’re trying to move forward, it can make things really, really difficult. You can have a nonviolent crime, but with that conspiracy or gang [case], it can be escalated to like it being violent now,” explained Owes. “So I’m looking at a whole different set of consequences.”
Many gang cases are prosecuted under the federal RICO Act, which was created to target the mafia and can hold one person liable for the actions of others deemed to be in the same criminal organization.
Owes said she hopes the Council’s proposed bill will help others unfairly labeled as a gang member. She also hopes the measure will allow gang members who may have made a mistake at a young age to seek a different path forward without the weight of conspiracy charges and prison sentences.
“It’s so hard to recover from,” said Owes.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller told THE CITY in a statement that the department would review Reynoso’s new bill, but that the proposal is “at best misguided.”
Miller wrote that the database is not only used to solve gang-related shootings and homicides, but to get ahead of retaliatory shootings to stop the cycle of violence. The database has helped cops while enabling neighborhood-based groups and violence interrupters to prevent deaths, he said.
“The NYPD’s Criminal Group Database has a strict set of rules and criteria, multiple levels of review, and is subject to audits to remove individuals no longer active in gang activity,” Miller added.
“Making it a crime for investigators to access the information to solve or prevent gang violence is a disservice not just to police, but to the communities most affected by the shootings and murders of young people in their streets.”
The NYPD did not respond to requests by THE CITY for a count of how many individuals are now in the city’s gang database. Reporting by The Intercept in 2018 showed that under the de Blasio administration the database had ballooned by over 70%, to more than 42,000 entries.
The investigation of a similar database in Chicago found that it was “deeply flawed.” Another analysis in Los Angeles found children as young as one year old in the city’s list of gang members, and led to the prosecution of members of the police department for falsifying records.
As reported by THE CITY in July, New York City’s own watchdog agency, the Department of Investigation, is wrapping an “examination” of the city’s database.
“We will provide our findings in a report that will be issued at the conclusion of the investigation, which is in its final stages,” said Diane Struzzi, a DOI spokesperson.
Shea Defends Database
The new bill marks the latest thrust by opponents of the database, as calls to end the practice grow louder by the year.
At the most recent City Council hearing on the subject in 2019, now-Police Commissioner Dermot Shea testified that nearly every single person in the database was Black or Latino.
At a rally last month, elected officials and advocates questioned why the database does not include white nationalist group or mafia members.
Meanwhile, Shea has continued to staunchly defend the database.
“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 recently told NY1.
Michael Alcazar, a recently retired NYPD detective who is now a professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, also defended the database. The resource, he told THE CITY, made his work safer by helping cops know what they’re getting into during an investigation.
“Before we go into location, we’re aware if there’s any gang activity there,” he said.
“They’re just really a precaution for our investigators,” Alcazar added. “And again, if we arrest somebody, if they tell us that they have some gang information, we can verify.”
The Bronx 120
But to Babe Howell, a professor at CUNY School of Law and expert in gang prosecutions, use of the database amounts to one thing: profiling.
“There’s no good database of police collecting information about people’s association, and friendships and appearance. That’s profiling. And because we put the label ‘gang’ on it, and because people are really afraid of gangs...they’re relying on us to be afraid of gangs. And it’s working,” she told THE CITY.
According to the NYPD, New Yorkers can be added to the gang database by what police deem self-admission, through “reliable sources” or if they simultaneously fulfil two criteria. Those criteria include “frequent presence at a known gang location,” “association with known gang members,” “frequent wearing of gang colors” and more.
But in Howell’s research on a gang sweep billed by police as “the largest gang takedown in New York City history” by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, she found that half of the 120 Bronx men arrested weren’t gang members.
““The NYPD tells us that what it is doing in collecting and compiling information on youth of color is ‘precision’ policing but, like stop-and-frisk before it, it is a dragnet approach based on racial profiles,” said Howell. “Unlike stop-and-frisk, there is no judicial review and people who are subjected to this surveillance are sometimes unaware that they are being targeted.”
The Legal Aid Society has encouraged New Yorkers to ask the NYPD whether their name is included in the database through their “Do It Yourself” Freedom of Information Law campaign.
Owes has no idea whether or not she is in the NYPD database — her request for her own records was denied, she said.
‘What are We Accomplishing?’
Reynoso will be rallying Wednesday to end the list alongside GANGS coalition members, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and several Democratic nominees for City Council.
Taylonn Murphy, a GANGS coalition member and nonviolence advocate, lost a daughter to gun violence and a son to prison after a gang raid.
Murphy said that young people he’s worked with don’t want to be labeled, and that they need help.
“What does this list do? What are we accomplishing by having this list? It doesn’t enhance public safety.” he asked.
“No one knows how you get on the list. If you don’t know how you got on the list, you don’t know how you get off.”