Calif. bill to change how police use gang databases moves ahead on heels of scathing review

As auditors condemn how police have use the "CalGang" database, Assembly Member Shirley Weber's bill to alter police practices gains steam.

A bill designed to overhaul how California law enforcement agencies manage statewide gang databases is one step closer to passing, following a scathing report from the state’s auditor about one such system known as “CalGang.”

The state Senate’s Appropriations Committee passed Assembly Member Shirley Weber’s A.B. 2298 Thursday, giving it the chance to earn a floor vote after it passed the Assembly in June. The move comes the same day State Auditor Elaine Howle released findings from her office showing that one of the state’s largest databases of suspected gang members was poorly managed and riddled with errors, and calling for more oversight of the system, which police have been using as part of an internet-connected software package since 1997.

Weber’s bill would directly address those concerns, calling for agencies to annually submit information on the people they’ve included in these databases (and the people who have asked to be removed from them) to the state’s Department of Justice for review. The legislation would also require departments to notify every person who is entered into the database, and require that they remove anyone included in database who isn’t convicted of a gang-related crime within three years.

Currently, state law only requires agencies to notify the parents or guardians of juveniles included in the database, while federal law stipulates that people be removed after five years if police don’t update their file.


However, Howle’s audit of CalGang found that agencies generally struggled to meet either of those standards. Her office reviewed how four departments used the database — the Los Angeles Police Department, the Santa Ana Police Department, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office — with some troubling results.

“We found more than 600 people in CalGang whose purge dates extended beyond the five-year limit, many of which were more than 100 years in the future,” Howle wrote in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers attached to the report. “Two agencies we reviewed did not provide juveniles and parents with enough information to reasonably contest the juveniles’ gang designations, thereby denying many people their right to contest a juvenile’s gang designation.”

Furthermore, Howle’s analysts found that “agencies lacked adequate support for 13 of 100 people we reviewed in CalGang and for 131 of 563 (23 percent) of the CalGang criteria entries we reviewed,” lending credence to the assertions of civil rights advocates that police have long indiscriminately included people in the database, often simply on the basis of race.

Indeed, the auditors found a variety of cases where the departments classified groups as “gangs” with inadequate documentation to support those claims. Additionally, they found inconsistencies with even basic cases of police entering people into the databases.

“For example, Sonoma justified entering a person into CalGang in part because he supposedly admitted to being a gang member during a custody classification interview at the county jail,” the auditors wrote. “However, when we obtained a record of this interview, we found that the person said he was not currently a member of the gang to which he was later connected in CalGang. In fact, he specifically requested to not be housed with this gang. The only criterion for this individual’s inclusion in CalGang for which we found support was that he had been seen associating with documented gang members.”


[Read more: Suit alleges California database violates law, prompted attacks]

The analysts also found that “the agencies we examined did not review records before and after entering them in CalGang and that committee audits of the information within CalGang lacked independence and transparency.” Similarly, the auditors were concerned that “three agencies reported using CalGang for employment or military-related screenings, which represent an inappropriate use of the system.”

“Although these practices do not appear to be common place, they emphasize the effect CalGang can have on a person’s life,” Howle wrote.

Ana Muniz, the director of the Dream Resource Center at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center, told StateScoop that her research shows that being on the database indeed has a significant impact on the daily lives of members of minority communities.

“If someone is applying for a job and declined, it would be difficult to know if they were on a gang database or it’s something else,” Muniz said. “Sometimes, after being the victim of a crime, they find out that, ‘Oh, you’re not eligible for victim’s compensation,’ because of the database.”


Howle’s report charges that an “inadequate leadership structure” overseeing the database helped lead to these sorts of failings. Though the state’s Department of Justice helps fund the database and provides “technology and infrastructure support,” the system itself is only managed by two “informal” governing bodies: an executive board and advisory committee made up of representatives from the agencies that use the database.

“The board and the committee act without statutory authority, transparency, or meaningful opportunities for public engagement,” the auditors wrote.

Accordingly, they recommend that lawmakers pass legislation to give the DOJ oversight of the database. Weber’s bill would indeed go a long way toward meeting the auditors’ suggestions, and it now only needs to pass the Senate floor before it heads to the governor’s desk — according to the legislative analytics company FiscalNote, it has a 60.4 percent chance of doing so.

But as the Legislature debates that measure and weighs others like it, the auditors want the DOJ to work on developing a system to automatically purge people from the database after five years, and they want all the departments they examined to conduct internal reviews of the data they’ve submitted to CalGang.

“Increased transparency in CalGang’s governance and operations could strengthen the public’s confidence in the system,” the auditors wrote.

Latest Podcasts