Two Minnesota gang databases draw fire

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS
  • Star Tribune
  • December 2, 2009 - 9:25 PM

A report issued Wednesday criticizes two widely used gang databases in Minnesota and recommends that at least one be shut down, but a top law enforcement official said they're a useful crime fighting tool.

The report by the University of St. Thomas School of Law Community Justice Project and the St. Paul NAACP criticizes aspects of the Gang Pointer File, which has about 2,400 names and was started in 1997 by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and GangNet, which was established in 1998 by the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office and has nearly 16,800 names.

The 43-page report questions whether GangNet should continue to exist, given its redundancy with the Gang Pointer File, and it raises concerns about how names make it into the databases.

While the Gang Pointer File purports to be a list of confirmed gang members, GangNet also includes names of suspected gang members or associates. To be listed in GangNet, a person must meet only one of 10 criteria, which include such things as whether he or she has gang tattoos, appears in photos with gang members, or is known to associate regularly with them.

The report said it's disconcerting that in 2008 alone GangNet grew by 13 percent, or about 1,000 names, at a time when the Metro Gang Strike Force was running full-force. The Strike Force was shut down last summer after investigations found mismanagement and corruption. The report calls for a special audit of all entries made by the Strike Force into the two databases.

"The alleged corruption of the Metro Gang Strike Force has arguably spread far and wide," the report said. "There is little reason to assume the administration of the Gang Pointer File and GangNet, which may have been one of the task force's primary duties, is immune from that corruption."

The report also said some community members are concerned that minorities are over-represented; as of late last year, 55 percent of the people in the Pointer File and 42 percent in GangNet were black, the report said.

"Given the minimal requirements for inclusion into that database, I think it's very easy for a person in an inner-city community who is not involved in that activity to be engulfed in it," said Nekima Levy-Pounds, St. Thomas Community Justice Project director and associate law professor. "Especially when those entries are made by a group that some people realize face some issues related to corruption."

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, whose department started and maintains GangNet, said Wednesday he is open to suggestions for improving it, but not to shutting it down. He shrugged off notions that the Metro Gang Strike Force's problems might taint the list's reliability.

"It's always good to have policy analysis or reevaluation such as this," Fletcher said. "But I think GangNet is a very valuable tool for law enforcement. It is reliable and accurate because it's based on incidents that actually occurred and were witnessed by law enforcement officers. It's not based on rumor or speculation."

Fletcher said concerns about race percentages need to take a backseat to preventing the recruitment of gang members.

"Whether or not the numbers reflect the disparity is an issue, but not as important as the travesty of poverty and illiteracy that is driving kids into gang environments," he said. "I think we have common ground on that."

Levy-Pounds responded by asking, "If poverty is the issue, why not expand some of the resources we used to establish GangNet and maintain it to tackle some of the poverty issues?"

The report calls for tighter criteria for entering names into the databases, with stronger oversight by the community and from within the departments that maintain them.

A 2007 sample audit by the BCA of 219 of the Pointer File's names revealed that 32 people were misidentified as gang members, a 15 percent failure rate, according to the report.

Fletcher said GangNet was in place years before the Strike Force implosion, and GangNet is needed for the Pointer System to exist because GangNet is where subjects are measured against the list-entry criteria. "Being in GangNet does not mean you're a gang member. It's merely a collection point," he said.

But Levy-Pounds said critics are concerned that being mistakenly associated with a gang on GangNet list might unjustly damage reputations and prompt harsher treatment from law enforcement or the court system.

"It's disconcerting that this entity has this information about you," she said, "especially if there's no justification for the group storing your information in the first place."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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