LOS ANGELES — Two Los Angeles police officers appeared at Melina Abdullah’s front door with an unsettling request. They wanted to question her youngest child about gang affiliation.
The officers left when Abdullah said she was calling a lawyer, never explaining exactly why they needed to interrogate her son — who, at age 6, was midway through the first grade.
Abdullah suspects this 2016 visit from the gang unit occurred because of her son's inclusion in CalGang, California's statewide database of suspected gang members and their associates. Georgia recently launched a similar database, in which it expects to compile information on tens of thousands of people. But recent events in Los Angeles suggest CalGang may represent less of a model than a cautionary tale.
The Los Angeles Police Department accused 20 officers, all from an elite crime-suppression unit, of fabricating evidence to justify listing alleged gang members on CalGang. The department fired one officer and removed the others from patrol duty. Now the California attorney general is investigating the LAPD's revelations, the latest blemish on one of the nation's oldest collections of criminal intelligence.
The malfeasance in Los Angeles ignited a long-simmering debate over the effectiveness and fairness of tracking people suspected of gang activity, especially those who have been neither convicted nor even charged in gang-related crimes.
Police and some criminal justice researchers describe such databases as invaluable investigative tools that point to possible suspects and alert officers of potentially dangerous encounters with gang members.
Gang databases “inform an investigation and prosecution,” said Sean Baldwin, a senior research associate at the National Gang Center, a federally funded clearinghouse in Tallahassee, Florida. “They are not in and of themselves evidence that can lead to a conviction.”
But the emerging scandal in Los Angeles has drawn attention to racial inequities, privacy concerns and possible constitutional issues in gang databases across the country.
About the story
With Georgia launching a statewide database to track alleged members and associates of criminal street gangs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent a reporter and a photographer to Los Angeles, where a controversy has arisen over fabricated entries in California’s statewide database, known as CalGang. This story is based on interviews with law enforcement experts, community activists and people working to make peace between rival gangs in Los Angeles.
Who’s a gang member?
People convicted of gang crimes will automatically be added to Georgia’s new street-gang database. But the police may list anyone who meets at least two of these more subjective criteria:
• Has tattoos of gang symbols.
• Uses gang hand signals.
• Wears gang clothes or colors.
• Posts gang material on social media.
• Appears in gang documents.
• Associates with gang members.
• Is identified as a gang member by a “reliable source/informant.”
• Is arrested — but not necessarily convicted — in a gang crime.
• Is suspected committing a gang crime.
• Admits to being a gang member.
Source: Georgia Bureau of Investigation
Authorities in Chicago last month announced plans to revamp their gang database, long tainted by outdated and inaccurate information. In Portland, Oregon, the police shut down a similar database after an analysis showed racial and ethnic minorities comprised 81 percent of those on the list but only 13 percent of the city's residents. In New York City, where the crime-suppression policy known as stop-and-frisk disproportionately targeted people of color, six state lawmakers and 15 city officials recently called for an investigation into how the police track people listed in the city's gang database.
And California had adopted several reforms even before the controversy in Los Angeles. Since 2017, for example, the state has required that police agencies notify people newly added to CalGang and offer them a chance to appeal the listing.
Georgia, the 14th state to create a statewide gang database, so far has compiled information on about 17,000 alleged gang members or their associates. That number is likely to multiply. An unscientific survey by a gang investigators' association estimated that more than 70,000 Georgians belong to or are associated with street gangs.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which manages the database, says its new system is designed to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued other states and cities. In a statement, the agency said it has “implemented physical and logical access control measures that appropriately limit access to information, processing systems and facilities to only authorized individuals.”
But Jaret Usher, head of the GBI’s gang task force, said Georgia authorities will not notify people recorded in the database and will accept no appeals. She said no other public agency has the authority to review how the GBI operates the database or to check the accuracy of its data.
“We have the oversight,” Usher said in an interview.
In Los Angeles, where abuses of CalGang have received extensive news coverage, even people who support the use of gang databases say Georgia’s approach is vulnerable to corruption.
“It’s got to be run right, with oversight,” said Tony Moreno, a retired LAPD gang detective and supervisor who now trains officers on gang investigations. “The database is a very valuable tool. But it has to be regulated and monitored.”
The LAPD’s iconic black-and-white patrol cars all display the department’s 60-year-old motto: “to protect and to serve.”
But decades of scandals and embarrassments – from the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson cases of the 1990s to more recent police shootings of unarmed civilians – subverted the department’s image for many Los Angeles residents. The CalGang controversy further deteriorated the relationship between the police and the community.
“It destroys trust,” said Sean Garcia-Leys, a lawyer with the nonprofit Urban Peace Institute who represents clients trying to get their names removed from CalGang. “It erodes confidence in the competence of the police. It makes the police look like a bunch of Keystone Kops out there making guesses and getting it wrong.”
Distrust of the police animates the weekly meetings of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the LAPD's oversight body. Community activists routinely launch profane attacks on commission members and on Chief Michel Moore, a 36-year LAPD veteran who absorbs the invective with a disciplined stoicism.
After a recent meeting, an activist shouted at Moore outside the department’s gleaming headquarters in downtown Los Angeles: “How many black people have you murdered today?”
Moore faced the man for several seconds, listening and smiling, before wishing him a nice day.
Moore told the police commission that the department has adopted new procedures to deter false gang reports. Among other measures, supervisors now corroborate officers’ field reports before submitting data to CalGang.
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The database is “of critical importance,” Moore said, but “the integrity of that information has to be absolute.”
He added: “This is a system that is in the process of adding safeguards and adding controls and regulations and oversight to ensure the integrity of the system is protected and maintained.”
Some activists praise Moore for proactively addressing the CalGang revelations.
“They could have hidden it from us, but they chose not to,” said Skipp Townsend, a one-time gang member who now runs a nonprofit, 2nd Call, that works to broker peace deals between gangs.
But for others, Townsend said, “it reinforces what they have been saying for 50 years” – that the police are corrupt and that they unfairly target African Americans, Latinos and other minorities.
That perception underscores the fraught history of tracking gang activity in Los Angeles.
In 1992, then-District Attorney Ira Reiner announced that the gang database contained listings on 47 percent of black men in Los Angeles between ages 21 and 24. It was a shocking statistic, and Reiner's lack of alarm only made matters worse.
“That number may be artificially high,” Reiner said at the time. “But … it may mean just what it says, that about one out of every two young black males are involved in gangs.”
A state audit released in 2016 further demonstrated CalGang's shortcomings. Auditors found scant documentation for nearly one in five of the 100,000 database entries. Many people remained in the system long after they should have been purged after five years with no documented gang activity.
The auditors also discovered that CalGang inexplicably contained reports on several dozen purported gang members less than a year old. Most of them, the auditors wrote, had been included after “admitting” their gang affiliations.
The LAPD began looking for false CalGang entries last year after a woman complained that her teenage son had been unjustifiably identified as a gang member. Officers with the crime-suppression unit said the boy wore gang colors and admitted gang membership when they stopped him near his home in the San Fernando Valley. But a police supervisor determined that body-camera footage contradicted the officers’ allegations. The LAPD deleted the boy’s record from CalGang and opened a broader investigation.
Critics suggest officers fabricated reports to meet the LAPD’s performance standards. The department denies it evaluates officers by how many gang members they identify, but it has offered no other reasons for the false listings.
Some activists have called for the LAPD to stop using CalGang. They consider it part of an insidious campaign to turn data and other intelligence into tools of oppression.
“That data gets used to ‘prove’ someone’s guilt or intention,” said Jamie Garcia of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. “It ends up becoming this continual attempt to cause harm, this continual attempt to target certain people.”
Melina Abdullah never learned what brought her son, now 10, to the attention of the LAPD’s gang unit. The officers visited her home before a state law required the police to share information from CalGang with people named in the database.
But Abdullah, a college professor who was a founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter, said that what she considers normal behavior by children and teenagers is often viewed by police through a darker, gang-tinted lens.
When one of her older children was in middle school, Abdullah said, police officers were called to his classroom because he “had a look in his eyes” that made teachers suspect he was connected to a gang. Another time, Abdullah said, officers questioned the same child because he brought a canister of Slime to school.
Even a casual inference of gang affiliation can stigmatize a child, Abdullah said.
“It makes me tremendously concerned,” she said. “It’s a sad state when you know at least two of your children have had police calls.”
Similar concerns can be heard across South-Central Los Angeles, an epicenter of gang violence in the 1980s, the site of rioting in the early 1990s, and still the home of many of the city’s poorest residents, far from the glittering towers of downtown and the mansions that hug the hills above Hollywood.
Townsend, the gang interventionist who runs 2nd Call, recounted the negative effects CalGang had on a 19-year-old he counseled. The young man stole a soda and a bag of chips from a convenience store and scuffled with the owner.
Because the young man’s name already appeared on CalGang, prosecutors contended the theft was gang related — and that it merited a 12-year extension to his prison sentence.
A judge rejected the enhanced penalty. Still, the young man went to prison for two years.
“But he is a child,” Townsend said. “He needed to be slapped on the wrist or his mama needed to whip him. Stealing a soda and a bag of chips is not gang activity. This hurts the community, instead of teaching a child to be a man.”
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In South-Central, not only young people are tagged as gang members.
Larry Sanders is 59. He is a singer who, performing under the name L.V., is best known for appearing on the rapper Coolio's 1995 hit "Gangsta's Paradise." Sanders also is a gang interventionist, employed through a city grant to help run a summer recreation program for children and teenagers.
On April 29 last year, Sanders and several friends were hanging out at their usual spot in Green Meadows Park in South-Central, a shady enclave with picnic tables, playground equipment, a recreation center and a distant view of the San Gabriel Mountains. As they did many days, Sanders and the others played dominoes, listened to old-school soul music and maybe drank a beer or two.
“We were just kicking it in the park,” as Sanders put it on a recent afternoon at Green Meadows.
The mood changed when a police car sped into the parking lot, Sanders said. Two officers hopped out, saying someone had complained about loud music and drinking in the park.
“Who here’s on parole or probation?” Sanders said one of the officers asked.
“Nobody,” Sanders answered.
“Lift up your shirts and show us your tattoos,” an officer ordered.
Sanders’ only tattoo, on his left bicep, depicts a cross formed from piano keys and musical notes – nothing, he said, like the gang markings the officers were looking for.
Sanders was irritated. “I told them, ‘I’m old enough to be your grandfather,’” he said. Apparently because of his backtalk, he said, the officers recorded his name and other information on a field interview report, an index card-sized form where the police document such observations as person’s gang affiliation and any “personal oddities.”
A few days later, Sanders received a letter from the LAPD: He had been added to CalGang.
Among the reasons: he had been seen “associating with documented gang members” and “frequenting gang areas.” Each was true; his job required it.
For weeks afterward, Sanders said, officers repeatedly stopped him with questions about his gang affiliation. Finally, he went to a lawyer: Garcia-Leys of the Urban Peace Institute, who appealed Sanders’ inclusion in CalGang.
Sanders learned several weeks later that the LAPD had granted his appeal.
“I’m off now – so they say,” he said. But he still hasn’t received official notice.
Sanders sees the episode as a reflection of generations of overaggressive policing aimed at people of color – and as an argument for holding the police accountable.
“They feel like they can do what they want to do,” Sanders said, sitting on a park bench a few feet from where the officers questioned him last April. “If you don’t have somebody stand up, I guess they can do what they want to do.”