Gaby Febland

As the Illinois General Assembly prepares to reconvene later this month for its veto session, community activists are gearing up to continue pushing to reform how law enforcement tracks alleged gang members in several controversial databases. The activists, who have fought since 2017 to dismantle the Chicago Police Department’s infamous—and often inaccurate—gang databases, say any bill that comes out of Springfield should include input from affected communities in Chicago. 

During last winter’s legislative session, bills that would have placed some oversight on police gang databases were proposed in both the House and Senate, but were not passed. Activists, some of whom opposed the bill, say they are already scheduling meetings ahead of the upcoming session to ensure there is more community input and communication between Chicago and Springfield about how gang databases should operate—or whether they should exist at all. 

The CPD’s database (which encompasses a melange of data repositories, computer programs and data visualization tools) has drawn criticism for its egregious errors. Outside agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) have accessed the CPD databases—which are overwhelmingly composed of persons of color—more than 1 million times. More than half of the entries in the CPD databases are based on arrests from just thirteen of the city’s seventy-seven community areas, most on the city’s south and west sides. In April, a report by the city Inspector General made clear that the databases “undermine public confidence in the [CPD’s] legitimacy.” 

“When you see that ninety-five percent of the people [in the CPD database] are people of color, there is no doubt that this is a tool used by law enforcement agencies to criminalize communities of color,” said Rosie Carrasco, an organizer with Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), a grassroots group led by undocumented persons. Carrasco found out about the existence of the databases when ICE agents detained a member of her community based on information held by the CPD.

Cinthya Rodriguez, director of organizing at the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos (CTU), said the history of the gang database is a history of systemic racism. “But it’s also the history of struggles and fights that have been won by our communities [and] that have not been received well,” she said.

Legislation Stalled in Springfield

State Senator Patricia Van Pelt, whose district includes parts of Homan Square, Lawndale, Garfield Park, and West Town, introduced a bill to reform gang databases in May 2018. State Representative Justin Slaughter, whose district includes Washington Heights, Morgan Park, and some south suburbs—and who chairs the Criminal Judiciary Committee in the House—filed a similar piece of legislation in the House in February 2019. 

The legislation sought to ensure that access to gang databases be limited to law enforcement or criminal justice agencies or those with the proper security clearance; forbid the use of the database for the purpose of “employment, education, licensing, or housing”; update security procedures; have clear policies regarding the process by which a name is purged from the database; and make it so that evidence of someone being listed on these databases is not admissible in criminal court. 

After its First Reading the day of its introduction, HB2519 was then referred to the Rules Committee, which two weeks later assigned it to the Criminal Committee. After a March 20th amendment filed by Slaughter passed the bill back to the Rules and then subsequently the Criminal Committee, the legislation, with an amendment included, passed the Committee a week later. After its Second Reading, the crucial Third Reading and subsequent vote occurred on April 9th, eventually passing the bill 78-34. The next day the legislation arrived in the Senate, where it languished in committee and died without making a crucial Senate committee vote deadline. Neither Van Pelt nor Slaughter responded to requests for comment.   

The bills may have languished in part because community activists came out against them. Organizations that advocate for communities targeted by the databases, such as the CTU, Mijente, and OCAD, made clear that they felt that the community lacked a seat at the table. Mijente, OCAD, and the Black Youth Project 100 are fighting to eliminate the CPD’s database altogether as part of the Erase the Database coalition. “Finding out that there was state legislation being considered…and realizing that community organizations were not at the table was very concerning,” said OCAD organizer Ray Wences. Upon hearing about the legislation, OCAD reached out to its allies in Springfield and engaged in conversations with legislators to let them know that they felt the bill was a premature solution to a problem the organizers feel lawmakers don’t fully grasp. 

Besides the lack of community input, other aspects of the legislation were troubling to activists. Rodriguez said the vague language of the bill would allow for agencies like ICE to continue to use database information. And Wences said the lack of transparency around how these databases are compiled has made legislation “premature.” Rather, he added, activists and legislators should be pushing for increased transparency that takes into account the due process rights of those on the list. 

Aldermen Push for City-level Action

The CPD database’s overwhelming evidence of racial bias, inaccuracies, and sharing of data with agencies such as ICE and CHA has led many activists to call for its elimination. Moving forward, activists say they plan to continue pushing for change at the city level. A class-action lawsuit filed by attorneys from the MacArthur Justice Center on behalf of four individuals who say they were wrongly targeted in the database is currently ongoing. And organizers are also applying pressure to City Council. During her campaign, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has been opposed to the database’s outright elimination, pledged to replace the gang database and stop sharing information with ICE. However, Carrasco said she hasn’t seen “a real commitment to work with community members around the gang database.” 

In the face of mayoral intransigence, City Council members and activists are taking it into their own hands: an ordinance was introduced September 18th by 20th Ward Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor and 47th Ward Alderman Matt Martin that would prevent CPD from making additional entries to the database and prohibit the department from using gang designations as the “sole justification” for surveilling an individual. Seventeen other aldermen, mostly other members of the Progressive Reform Caucus, have signed onto the ordinance. However, similar legislation that had forty-three sponsors failed to even be called for a vote in City Council last year.

Other Databases Remain Secretive

Other law enforcement agencies in Illinois also have databases that are allegedly plagued by racial bias, unclear criteria, factual inaccuracies, and widespread access to sensitive information. According to reporting by ProPublica Illinois, the Illinois State Police have compiled a list of over 90,000 people deemed to be gang members, some of whom were identified based only on tattoos or informants. The Illinois Department of Corrections also operates its own secretive database, which is shielded from Freedom of Information Act requests. And before it was dismantled by the Cook County Board earlier this year following public pushback, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office had a gang database that included more than 25,000 individuals.

Noting that all the information gathered about the CPD’s database had to be “fought for” through public records requests, Wences said she was sure that there are “many other gang databases operating throughout the state” that the public is still unaware of. Pushing for “transparency and accountability” is key to organizing support for their elimination, she said, and that effort is an “opportunity for everyone” to join the fight.  

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Gabe Levine-Drizin is a contributor to the Weekly.

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