Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Chicago’s Gang Database Can Have ‘Devastating’ Consequences, But There’s No Way To Be Removed From It.

Social media posts, tattoos, or the unvetted word of an officer can lead to inclusion on the list, which is overwhelmingly composed of people of color.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Chicago’s Gang Database Can Have ‘Devastating’ Consequences, But There’s No Way To Be Removed From It.

Social media posts, tattoos, or the unvetted word of an officer can lead to inclusion on the list, which is overwhelmingly composed of people of color.


Chicago may be moving toward a settlement in a class action lawsuit challenging its gang database. The suit was filed against the city, its police officers, and former Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson on behalf of all current and future people in the database, four named plaintiffs who are in the database, and several community groups. 

The city and plaintiffs have been in settlement talks, and tomorrow they will return to court to provide an update on the status of their negotiations. 

“We’re progressing,” said Vanessa del Valle, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, which filed the suit. “The plaintiffs are hopeful that we can possibly reach a settlement.”

In response to a request for comment, the Chicago Police Department referred questions to the city’s Department of Law. The Department of Law did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

There is no due process to being included in this patchwork of tools and systems that collects gang information, criminal justice reform advocates say, even though the information is widely shared and can lead to deportation, lost jobs and housing, police harassment, and higher bails. 

Who's going to believe them that they're not a gang member if you have this official record from the police department saying they're a gang member?Vanessa del Valle, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center

The police department shares information from the database with more than 500 agencies, including ICE, the FBI, and public schools, according to a report by the city’s inspector general that was published in April. 

“The consequences are devastating, particularly to the immigrant community,” said del Valle. “Being labeled as a gang member hurts people in their immigration proceedings. It prevents them from getting basically any type of immigration relief.”

Carolina Gaete, a local activist, says police wrongfully arrested her 17-year-old son Tomas “Nico” Gaete —they accused him of carrying out a gang-related shooting—because of his inclusion in the database. He was released after a week in jail, and the case was dismissed, according to the class action complaint.

“I fought so hard for him to stay out of jail, and then he gets accused of something he didn’t do because of racist tools that police use,” said Gaete, who is the director of the community organization Blocks Together. “If this is happening to Nico, I’m sure this is happening all over the city.” 

Any number of criteria can land someone in the database, such as social media posts, tattoos, or information from another officer. According to the April report, more than 88 percent of reported gang-related arrests between 1997 and 2018 involved people whom officers say admitted to being in a gang; officers in almost all of the rest of the arrests didn’t specify a reason for the gang designation. Officers claimed that three of the named plaintiffs admitted to being in a gang, an allegation that they all deny, according to the complaint.

Once an officer, including school resource officers, designates someone as a gang member, that person is added to the database, with no oversight or vetting. Thousands of people have been erroneously classified, according to the complaint. 

There’s no way to be removed from the database, even if the information is incorrect or decades old. More than 2,800 people listed are over 60, according to the complaint. A 9-year-old child was listed almost 20 years ago and remains there, according to the report. Even though the database ideally should be abolished, del Valle said, at a minimum, people should be notified they are listed and have a way to appeal, as the Office of the Inspector General recommended.

“Who’s going to believe them that they’re not a gang member if you have this official record from the police department saying they’re a gang member?,” said del Valle. “There’s no way for them to fight it.”

In April, the Chicago Police Department proposed a new policy in which annual audits would be conducted and those who have not “committed another qualifying crime or act in furtherance of gang activity” would be removed from the database after five years. Under the proposal, all submissions would be reviewed by several supervisors. The criteria for inclusion, like the current policy, includes self-identification, as well as “gang tattoos, the use of gang signs or symbols, information provided from a confidential informant, or other law enforcement agency,” according to the department.

The proposed policy, advocates say, would perpetuate many of the failings of the current database. “It is creating a new gang database without sufficient protections,” said del Valle. “The new proposed policy doesn’t address any of the constitutional violations that we assert in the lawsuit.”


The database is overwhelmingly made up of people of color. Community activist Gaete said it’s “used to criminalize black and brown youth, in particular boys.”

Of the more than 128,000 adults listed, 95 percent are Black or Latinx, according to the suit. More than 50 people were added to the database when they were 11 or 12 years old; one person was Asian, and the rest were Black or Latinx, according to the suit. Plaintiffs did not have access to data on those who are still under the age of 18 and listed in the database, according to del Valle.  

These numbers reflect the racism that is endemic in the Chicago Police Department, say advocates. From 1972 to 1991, former police commander Jon Burge and his officers tortured over 100 Black men and women. More than 20 of the people Burge or his officers tortured have been exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. 

Black residents continue to be the primary victims of abuse and harassment, according to advocates. Racism among Chicago police officers was documented in a 2016 report by the city task force on police accountability, as well as a 2017 Department of Justice report, which led to a consent decree with the federal government.

Almost three-quarters of the people shot by police from 2008 to 2015 were Black, according to the city’s report. In 2014, police officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, as he was walking away. Mandated by a court order, the police department released video of the shooting in 2015, prompting massive protests

“Racism and maltreatment at the hands of the police have been consistent complaints from communities of color for decades,” wrote the authors of the city task force’s report. “Regardless of the demographic, people of color loudly expressed their outrage about how they are treated by the police.”

Across the country, advocates have condemned gang databases. This month, more than 20 local elected officials sent a letter to the NYPD’s inspector general, Philip Eure, asking him to investigate the department’s list, according to the New York Daily News. Devora Kaye, the NYPD’s acting deputy commissioner of public information, told the Daily News that the database is reviewed every three years, and thousands of people have been removed. 

Between December 2013 and February 2018, of the more than 17,000 people added to the city’s database, over 98 percent were Black or Latinx, according to a report released last week by the Policing and Social Justice Project. However, members of The Proud Boys, a white supremacist organization, are not listed, according to the report. Like in Chicago, New York City police officers, including school resource officers, have the “unilateral power to designate people as gang members,” the report’s authors write.

“The problems of poor communities of color are being labeled as gang problems when problems in other communities are not,” Alex Vitale, an author of the report, told The Appeal. 

In conjunction with the report’s release, local activists launched Erase The Database NYC, a coalition that seeks the abolition of the city’s list. Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the database on a recent episode of WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” saying he was open to examining potential deficiencies, but would not abolish it. 

“Should we keep assessing if it’s working? Should we keep assessing if it’s handled fairly?” de Blasio said during the program. “Of course. Are we going to give up a strategy that’s central to stopping gang violence that’s afflicting so many neighborhoods? No, we’re not going to do that.”

But advocates say that in addition to the harms inflicted almost exclusively on people of color, databases also fail to provide any public safety benefit. The list is not a “crime fighting tool,” said Anthony Posada, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society Community Justice Unit. 

“What we know it to be is more of a tool of mass criminalization, one in which people have no protection, no due process,” Posada told The Appeal. “We need to end it.”

In response to public outcry, some jurisdictions have implemented reforms—or, as in Portland, Oregon, eliminated the database entirely. California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Fair and Accurate Gang Database Act of 2017, which allows those in the state’s database to petition for removal. But since the statute took effect, only about a dozen people have been removed, according to local news outlet Voice of San Diego

And an ordinance passed in February required the Cook County sheriff’s office to destroy its database—one of the sources that the Chicago police drew on for gang information.

“There’s so much harm in labeling someone a gang member,” said del Valle. “You’re ruining people’s lives.”