Earlier this year, the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force (NVRGTF), which includes officers from 15 law enforcement agencies spanning several Virginia cities and the Virginia State Police, announced it would suspend use of the GangNet database for the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Operated by the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA), the database contains approximately 7,800 records. Individuals have been added for admitting to being a gang member, being identified as a gang member by a reliable source, revealing gang tattoos, wearing gang attire, being known to associate with gang members or having been arrested with known gang members, according to The Washington Post.
HIDTA and other users can utilize the database as an investigative aid, but agreed not to use it for probable cause to arrest. Additionally, GangNet has been utilized by regional jails and prisons to identify gang membership among new inmates, per the newspaper. According to HIDTA data, only 20% of entries have been identified as white, and the remainder as people of color, which has raised concerns by civil rights advocates. HIDTA Executive Director Tom Carr, however, says this disparity isn’t due to a built-in bias, but rather reflects the region’s gang demographics.
“The whole purpose of the system is to identify all the different gangs and their members operating in the area. It is merely a pointer system,” he told The Washington Post.
“The use of a database where they track suspected gang members is not inherently a problem. The problem is really the procedures and lack of transparency about how people get in there and the lack of an option to dispute whether or not they should be in there,” countered Kofi Annan, executive director of The Activated People, an activist group promoting racial equity.
The Washington Post reported that member agencies do not alert persons entered into the database and decline inquiries from individuals who suspect they may have been added to it.
While NVRGTF confirmed it will cease use of GangNet, Executive Director Jay Lanham cites manpower demands to input data and keep it updated, not racial bias, as impetus. He also states the task force already had plans to switch to another database software but awaits necessary funding.
Over on the West Coast, the Los Angeles Police Department has incurred problems with its use of a gang database. Per the Los Angeles Times, then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra rescinded the department’s access to the CalGang database last summer. In October, six LAPD officers were charged with falsifying gang affiliation information on field interview cards, which allegedly led to the individuals being added to the state’s gang database based on the falsified notes.