Gang List flaws could harm whole families


A report on two Minnesota gang databases released December 2, “Evaluation of Databases in Minnesota & Recommendations for Change,” has raised important questions about practices with a significant impact on Black youth and families statewide. Other media coverage has focused on sections of the study and reactions from law enforcement officials. The MSR spoke last week with the project director to clarify the report’s background, findings and conclusions.   

The 43-page report was co-prepared by the University of St. Thomas Law School’s Community Justice Project and the St. Paul NAACP. It raises questions on whether the Minnesota Gang Pointer File, established in 1997, and GangNet, established in 1998, should continue to be used by local and state law enforcement officials for tracking gang members. It also offers several recommendations, including notifying parents when their child is placed on the gang list.

“Parental notification was one of our key recommendations,” St. Thomas law professor and Project Director Nekima Levy-Pounds told the MSR during a December 3 interview. Such notification is not currently required when an individual is placed on the list, which does require that the individual be at least 14 years of age, previously convicted of a major crime, and meet at least three of the 10 criteria for identifying gang membership.

Levy-Pounds, several law students and community members worked on the report for almost three months. “Our concern was how young you can be to be entered into GangNet,” the professor explained. “The hope is that you are at least 14 years old, but that was not clear in terms of what we saw in writing from the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office.”

As of 2008, the report pointed out, 54 percent of the 2,438 individuals on the Gang Pointer File are Black (1,324), 36 percent are White (870), nine percent are Native American (209) and five percent are Asian (134). [Although these numbers do not add up, they are reproduced as given in the 2008 Annual Report of the Metro Gang Strike Force; Hispanics in the report were included as Whites.]

The overwhelming predominance of Blacks on the list greatly concerned community members, said Levy-Pounds. “You think about a 14-year-old being entered into a gang database,” she said, adding that too often neither the youth nor the youth’s parents are even aware that he or she has been listed as a gang member.
“That has ramifications for the whole family,” said Levy-Pounds, “because that person’s address most likely is included in the database, and other information that may actually pertain to the entire family.”

Such listing may include the family’s residence being under surveillance by law enforcement officers, Levy-Pounds pointed out. “Then, if one sibling is on the gang database and the other is not, what happens if those two siblings are observed walking down the street together? Does that mean that the sibling who is not in the database and not in a gang would then potentially be added? I don’t think we’ve explored the full impact on families when children are entered into gang databases.”

The report strongly recommends that an “immediate parental notification” must be included in these databases. “Parents need to know that there’s suspicion of gang involvement or confirmed gang involvement, so that parents have the opportunity to intervene,” surmises Levy-Pounds. “But when parents are ready to intervene, there need to be appropriate resources in place to support their intervention and their efforts.”

The report also recommends a special audit of the two gang databases; an appeal process for those who believe they were misidentified or are no longer in a gang; and more community involvement in working with law enforcement to either change or redefine the current 10-point criteria system for documenting gang members.

Levy-Pounds said the St. Paul NAACP contacted her department earlier this year to study the growing gang problem in St. Paul. She then facilitated four community meetings in August and September. “One of the things that we decided to do was first get a handle on the situation,” she noted.

The first meeting included law enforcement officers, city and county prosecutors. “What we saw from the first forum was a lot of confusion,” recalled Levy-Pounds. The confusion included the officials telling community residents that there was little or no distinction between the two databases.

Officials also didn’t know if anyone could be taken off the list if misidentified or if no longer an active gang member. “We found that to be problematic and disturbing that we could not get clear answers,” said Levy-Pounds. “The fact that law enforcement believes that it [GangNet] is a tool, does that outweigh the harm to the community that is mostly impacted? After that forum, we [then] decided that we would prepare an independent report.”

Gathering community input for the report also was important, said the St. Thomas professor: “We wanted our report to be as complete as possible. I think it was wonderful to be able to collaborate with the community. Most of the time when you have issues like this, especially communities of color and poor communities of color being impacted, they typically don’t have a voice throughout the process.”

With recent published reports on allegations of misdoings with the Metro Gang Strike Force, studying the gang databases became even more important, noted St. Paul NAACP President Nathaniel Khaliq. “Our concerns are not only with the Metro Gang Task Force, but throughout the whole system,” he added.

“When we started looking at this, it was obvious to us that there was a great injustice that was being done to many of our young people being labeled,” Khaliq continued. He supports the report’s parental notification recommendation, as well requiring that law officers notify individuals when they are included on the gang list. “I think the government has an obligation to notify people on a list that can be detrimental to them.”

“From our research, GangNet is used by about 96 agencies across the state,” said Levy-Pounds. “So the database does go beyond what’s happening in St. Paul.”

The gang report also is being given to state legislators, she pointed out. “We are really adamant about the need for there to be a special audit, especially of those entries done by the Metro Gang Strike Force,” said Levy-Pounds, adding, “I wonder what will be the remedy for all those people who may have been unjustly placed in a gang database. Who is going to investigate that? I would like to see some action, particularly in that arena.”

Unlike Ramsey County, Hennepin County does not use GangNet but does use the Minnesota Gang Pointer File, which is maintained by the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), according to Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. “Gang activity in our metropolitan area continues to increase and not decrease,” he notes.

Stanick said he read the report and attended a presentation by Levy-Pounds at a recent Minnesota Sheriff’s Association meeting. “I thought the report was well thought out,” he said. “I think [parental notification] is one of the things that the Gang and Drug Oversight Council will strongly consider.

“I think that there is a good chance that some of those things might change: notification to parents; having a clear-cut structure by which, if you are listed on the database, either notification or a way for you to find out that you are listed; and then some type of appeals process or disclosure process. I think all those [recommendations] merit further discussion,” Stanek said.

Finally, Levy-Pounds urges that the gang data report and its recommendations be acted upon sooner rather than later. “I think we need to determine what is our vision in the state of Minnesota for reducing criminal gang activity and gang violence. We can either take the approach we are taking now, which is a huge case for concern, or we can move to an asset-based approach, where we focus on curbing gang involvement pro-actively for young people who are easy prey for getting into a gang.

“No one wants gang activity in their community,” she concluded, “but also, no one wants to be mislabeled or misidentified as a gang member. People want to be treated equally and fairly. Our laws should reflect that, but the practices and procedures [in law enforcement] should reflect that as well.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-re