Gang list criticized as racial profiling


St. Paul police indicated at a meeting last week that once a person’s name gets listed on a gang database, it remains there indefinitely whether or not they are in fact a gang member. Community members made known their dissatisfaction with this and other aspects of the gang list protocol.

The community meeting was held July 28 at St. Paul’s Martin Luther King Center, where an estimated 100 residents packed the center’s multi-purpose room. Many voiced their concern about the State Pointer File, which law enforcement officers use to identify gang members.

An individual placed on the database must be at least 14 years old and must have been found guilty of a felony or gross misdemeanor. According to Commander Tina McNamara of the St. Paul Police gang unit, a “confirmed gang member” must meet at least three of 10 established criteria, including being regularly observed with known gang members, being photographed with known gang members, using gang-related hand signs, and being identified as a gang member by a reliable source.

“That’s the rules we follow,” McNamara stated.

Jeffry Martin, chair of the St. Paul NAACP’s legal redress committee, questioned the validity of the sources law officers may use, especially if the individual is wrongly placed on the gang list. This sentiment was shared by the mostly Black audience — many felt that young Black males in particular are unfairly targeted and tagged as gang members.

“I’m asking is there any procedure in place to help verify some of the information on the database,” Martin said.

“This is verified, documented by law enforcement,” responded McNamara, adding that photographs often are the primary source used for such identification. “If somebody admits that they are a gang member, that’s obvious. The tattoos are something that is not going away any time soon.”

The St. Paul NAACP was among several local organizations sponsoring last week’s community meeting, which included McNamara and St. Paul Deputy Police Chief Nancy Di Perna, along with St. Paul City Attorney John Cho, Ramsey County Prosecution Division Director Philip Carruthers, and Ramsey County District Court Judge Gary Bastian as expert panelists.

Carruthers told the audience that it is not against the law to be in a gang.

“When we are talking about a gang, we are talking about a criminal gang,” he noted. “We won’t bring a charge unless we can prove the person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

University of St. Thomas Law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds told the panel that she believes “subversive measures” are used to identify gang members, calling this another form of racial profiling. “A lot of the criteria that have been stated are actually subjective,” she pointed out.

“Someone who outwardly looks as though they are [in a gang] to the police…may not be involved in gang membership,” Levy-Pounds said. “I think that gets to the heart of what the community is asking here: How can you get your name off the list if you are not a gang member?”

St. Paul resident James Shelton said his son, who currently is attending college for criminal justice, has been unfairly placed on the gang list. “He has no record other than playing loud music during Rondo Days,” he explained. “No felonies, no convictions.”

But after he legally purchased a gun and took gun lessons, Shelton’s son later learned that he was on the gang list while applying for a permit to carry the gun. “He doesn’t meet any of the criteria you heard tonight,” Shelton said.

“There was no one who verified that he was [in a gang]. My son’s career is being ruined.”

“There is no known protocol” for getting off the gang list, admitted McNamara. This admission didn’t relieve the tension felt inside the room during the two-hour meeting, especially when many audience members who wanted to speak out weren’t allowed to do so.

Martin told one resident who wanted to speak, “If we give everybody the opportunity to [speak out], we never would get anywhere.” The audience did, however, submit questions written on index cards, and Martin read several of them aloud to the panel for their response.

“The purpose of this meeting is to get some information out to the community,” Martin said, “and find community members who want to be involved in getting that issue changed.”

McNamara noted that the police want to work with community members and others to effect changes in the current gang listing system. Still, many left the meeting as frustrated as they came. Some saw the dialogue as too one-sided.

“When you say ‘community,’ everyone should have the opportunity to speak,” said a Black woman from St. Paul who asked that her name be withheld.

Angela Earl, who lives in the Summit-University area, added that a woman told her that her son is seriously thinking of changing his name because “their last name” is on the gang list. “He wants to change his name so that he is not associated with it,” she said.

Levy-Pounds said, “I wasn’t satisfied that you can’t get off the [gang] list. It seems to be a miscarriage of justice in this process.”

“There appear to be numerous loopholes and too much discretion left in the hands of law enforcement individuals,” said St. Paul NAACP President Nate Khaliq. “I would venture to say that [Blacks] make up over half of the names on that gang database.”

Save Our Sons (SOS) Executive Director Melvin Carter said that despite their frustrations at times, he was impressed with how the audience kept their cool. “Oftentimes when we come to talk about these things, they turn into shouting matches. Jeff [Martin] did a great job controlling this thing. I am relieved that it didn’t turn into somebody’s shouting and falling out.

“I think we got more questions as a result of the questions we asked,” Martin concluded.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@sp or read his blog:

Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.