Massive Chicago gang database under fire: Database is racially skewed, data shows; and violates spirit of sanctuary city, advocates say

Story and charts by Griselda Flores

Chicago’s notorious police gang database has been highly criticized by advocacy groups who claim that the list doesn’t honor Chicago’s “sanctuary city” status and is demographically skewed.

Chicago’s gang database — part of the department’s Citizen and Law Enforcement Analysis and Reporting, or CLEAR, system — faces ongoing federal lawsuits alleging violations of civil rights and racial profiling.

It’s also one of the biggest in the nation when compared to statewide gang databases like those of California and New York.

Among the more than 128,000 individuals included in the gang database are Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez and Luis Vicente Pedrote-Salinas. Both are suing the city of Chicago alleging they were misidentified as gang members by the Chicago Police Department and wrongly entered into the city’s gang database.

Their addition to the list led to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raiding their homes, their arrests and their placement in detention centers, according to Vanessa del Valle, clinical assistant professor of law at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, which filed the federal lawsuits.

Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance states that generally no city employee, including Chicago police officers, can turn someone over to immigration agents based on their immigration status. But there are exceptions under the ordinance.

The prohibition on Chicago employees cooperating with immigration officials does not apply when the subject of the investigation has an outstanding criminal warrant, has been convicted of a felony, has a felony charge pending or has been identified as a known gang member either in a law enforcement agency’s database or by his or her own admission.

“No one has really been focusing on the fact that the sanctuary city ordinance doesn’t even prohibit CPD from sharing the information,” del Valle said. “So whether or not there is a carve-out, CPD can still willingly share information with ICE, which is what it’s doing.”

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

While both lawsuits are still ongoing, Pedrote-Salinas has been released from detention after posting bail and Catalan-Ramirez remains in detention in the McHenry County Jail north of Chicago.

“Every time that the Chicago Police Department shares information about any of us with immigration enforcement, they are violating Chicago’s promise to be a Sanctuary City and to protect us from President Trump’s policies,” said Rosi Carrazco, an organizer at Organized Communities Against Deportation (OCAD), in a statement.

“The city of Chicago must look at how its policies criminalize people of color and feed us into Trump’s deportation machine,” added Carrazco.

Chicago police sharing information from the gang database with ICE isn’t the only issue that has advocacy groups up in arms. They also claim that the database is used as a tool for racial profiling because of its demographic makeup.

Documents the city provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request revealed there are racial disparities in the database. The documents show that more than 90,200 people in the Chicago gang database are identified as Black and nearly 32,000 are identified as white Hispanic, while fewer than 6,000 are white.

According to the 2016 Census, Black people make up 29.3 percent of the population in Chicago, while Hispanics make up 29.7 percent. White Chicagoans remain the largest racial group in Chicago, forming 32.6 percent of the population.

That means that 11.36 percent of the Black population in Chicago is in the gang database, 3.98 percent of the Hispanic population is included in the database and just 0.57 percent of the white population is in the database.

Such racial disproportion also exists in the gang databases for California and New York.

In the CalGang database, there are more than 150,000 individuals included — 20.5 percent are Black and 64.9 percent are of Latino descent, according to a report by the California state auditor.

As of 2013, New York’s database includes nearly 20,000 names, according to a study done by the University of Denver.

The study found that just one percent (212 individuals) in New York’s gang database were categorized as Caucasian or white. Approximately 48 percent of the individuals added to the database between 2003 and 2013 were identified as Black, and 42 percent Hispanic.

Chicago’s comparatively high numbers only account for alleged gang members in the city, not the whole state, whereas the databases for California and New York are statewide.

In Chicago, people cannot challenge their inclusion in the database or even find out if they are in it, del Valle said.

“Right now, people can be on the database and they don’t even know it. And there’s no way for them to find out,” del Valle said.

In California, individuals can challenge their inclusion in the database and be removed from it, under state legislation meant to create oversight and due process.

“They don’t have anything like that in Chicago, that’s one of the things that we’re striving for,” del Valle said. She noted that advocates want to overhaul the Chicago database and create protections “so that people are notified once they’re put in it and [can] contest their inclusion and have some type of hearing to present evidence and try to get themselves off of it.”

Chicago’s criteria for identifying gang members is similar to the criteria used in California and New York. In all three locations, criteria include scars/tattoos and wearing colors associated with gangs, and/or a person’s association with other gang members.

President Donald Trump has played a role in the crackdown on gang members in Chicago, in particular undocumented ones, as many advocates see it.

“You look at Chicago and you look at other places, so many of the problems are caused by gang members, many of whom are not even legally in our country,” Trump said in February as he asked police chiefs and sheriffs to “turn in the bad ones.”

Chicago leaders, most notably Mayor Rahm Emanuel, publicly oppose Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and his threat to revoke funding from sanctuary cities. But advocates say Emanuel’s support of the gang database contradicts the city’s sanctuary status.

“Contrary to popular belief, the sanctuary city ordinance as it stands now does not prohibit the Chicago Police Department from sharing information with immigration authorities,” said del Valle. “Chicago cannot truly be a sanctuary city until it stops voluntarily sharing information in its gang database with ICE, especially when the gang database is rifled with inaccuracies.”

While Emanuel has vowed that Chicago will not be intimidated by Trump’s harsh policies on sanctuary cities and said that “Chicago will not relinquish their status as a welcoming city,” advocates think his support of the gang database doesn’t align with the concept of “sanctuary.”

Local organizations like OCAD, which seeks to stop deportations through community mobilization, say they don’t just want to amend the gang database, they want it to be eliminated completely.

“The work that we’ve been doing with the Welcoming City ordinance is about getting a city to the standard of what we think would be a sanctuary,” said Tania Unzueta of OCAD.

“It’s not that we want to eliminate every way to be safe, it’s actually taking a look at something that isn’t working and being used to profile Black and Latino men. It’s not just about eliminating the database, it’s shifting the resources to things that will actually help our community.”

In October, Portland, Ore. discontinued its gang database in the face of complaints from residents. The Portland Police Bureau announced it would halt its practice of designating gang members because it had led to “unintended consequences” such as lifelong barriers to former gang members trying to find jobs.

An investigation by The Oregonian revealed that 81 percent of people included in the Portland gang database were racial or ethnic minorities.

Del Valle believes that gang databases “aren’t helping communities become safer.” Instead they “do more harm than good because it doesn’t help anyone that there’s false information that labels half the people in the South Side of Chicago as gang members. How is that helping public safety in any way?”

Photo courtesy of Organized Communities Against Deportations