The social justice movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd has intensified efforts by San Diego activists and others across the state to demand at the very least a freeze on police adding people to California’s gang database.
Some want it to be abolished, contending changes made in recent years to stop police abuses of the CalGang list have failed.
Why this matters
More than 78,000 people are on California’s gang database, and the vast majority are African American and Hispanic men. Police can put someone who has never committed a crime on the list as a gang member, which then allows officers to justify stopping and questioning the person.
“It’s imperative to seize the time,” said Laila Aziz with Pillars of the Community, a Southeast San Diego nonprofit that wants the database eliminated.
The database was established in 1998 to document and track suspected gang members and their associates. Since then, activists and defense attorneys say law enforcement has reached too far.
Too often, they say, the list is used to criminalize young African American and Latino men by tagging them as gang members for hanging around friends or relatives in a neighborhood that has had gang activity.
An inewsource review of public gang records found they could be right. The analysis of about 350 cases shows four out of every five people in San Diego County who were added to the database since 2017 were told one reason was affiliating with someone who is a documented gang member. In more than half the cases analyzed, people were told a reason was being in an area known for gang activity.
RELATED: New records show why you get labeled a gang member in San Diego County
Once someone is added to the database, the label of active gang membership affects every other interaction with the justice system — from how a prosecutor handles a first-time low-level offense to how an officer interacts with someone during a traffic stop.
Police can also use the label to justify further stops and questioning.
Rodney Jones Jr. said he knows this all too well. The 30-year-old grew up in Southeast San Diego and went to school in Clairemont, graduating from Madison High School in 2007. He’s been stopped multiple times by San Diego police but never been charged with a crime, according to court records.
He said he doesn’t know how he wound up on the CalGang list.
Jones recalled a time in high school when he and three classmates were stopped in Clairemont. Police pulled him out of the backseat of the car, separated him from the rest of the group and asked everyone else “a million questions.”
“What are you guys doing? Where are you guys going? Do you know he’s an active gang member? A million questions about me, but I’ve never been in trouble,” he said.
Police encounters like this one are common in San Diego, said Aziz, director of operations with Pillars of the Community. They’re one of the reasons she wants the CalGang database abolished.
“We have the data, we have the stories, we have the experience, and we have built the community power in order to really ask for the things that we’ve been asking for for a long time,” Aziz said.
With the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests, more Americans have a front-row seat to the problems in policing than ever before, said Geneviéve Jones-Wright, executive director of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance and a former San Diego deputy public defender.
After people around the country witnessed Floyd take his last breaths under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, after they heard Buffalo police say a 75-year-old protester “tripped and fell” despite watching officers push him to the ground, and after they saw demonstrations against police brutality met with police brutality, Jones-Wright said she hopes this is an awakening for those who doubted police treat people in communities of color differently.
“I always remain hopeful that we will be able to seize this moment, because this is a very different moment than we’ve ever seen before,” she said.
Following nationwide demonstrations that called for law enforcement to change the way they treat people of color, the Los Angeles Police Commission ordered a moratorium and a review of the department’s use of CalGang. The action also follows allegations that Los Angeles officers fabricated evidence to label people as gang members, which prompted an investigation by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
San Diego police Chief David Nisleit declined to be interviewed for this story, and Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s Office did not respond to interview requests.
The head of the San Diego Police Officers Association, Detective Jack Schaeffer, said he spent 12 years in the department’s gang unit. CalGang is an important tool for law enforcement, he said, because it allows officers to gather intelligence on what would otherwise be random acts of violence. But, he cautioned, it should be scrutinized.
“It needs to be handled in a very serious manner because you don’t ever want to put a label on somebody that they don’t deserve,” Schaeffer said.
Los Angeles appears to be the only law enforcement agency in the state to consider a moratorium on adding people to the CalGang database.
‘I don’t stand a chance’
CalGang has been dogged by criticism for years. A scathing 2016 state audit found it lacked oversight and was riddled with errors, including the names of 42 people with dates of birth indicating they were younger than 1 year old.
Twenty-eight of those infants admitted to being a gang member, the audit found.
And being on the database opens the door to gang enhancements — harsher punishments if you commit a crime.
D’Andre Brooks, a member of San Diego’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, said that at 17 he was facing 20 years in prison because of gang enhancements.
At the time, he was on probation for a robbery, for which he said he was present but did nothing to intervene. Shortly after that, he said he was accused of participating in a fight with five or six rival gang members at a trolley station, where one person suffered a broken nose.
Court records show Brooks was charged with assault with a deadly weapon — because the person was kicked while on the ground, he said. If he had taken his case to trial and lost, he might not have left prison until he was 37.
“I don’t stand a chance,” he said he thought at the time. “This is the life I’m into. There’s no way I’m going to be found innocent.”
Brooks, now 34, signed a plea deal for 11 years and wound up serving 10, he said.
“They dangle it (gang enhancements) over your head to get you to take a deal,” he said.
‘There should be an uproar’
State law requires agencies to send demographic information to the state about the people they add to the gang database.
As of last year, about 4,600 of California’s 78,000 documented gang members, or 6%, were designated gang members by San Diego County law enforcement agencies, according to state data.
From 2017 through 2019, Hispanic people comprised 70% of those added to CalGang by local law enforcement, while they represented 34% of the county’s population, according to 2018 census data. African Americans represented 19% of the people added to the gang database, while they made up 5% of the county’s population.
For the same period, 27 white people were added — or 3% of those added by local police agencies. Whites make up 45% of the county’s population.
“There should be an uproar about the fact that (CalGang) targets communities of color,” said San Diego Councilmember Monica Montgomery, who chairs the council’s Public Safety and Liveable Neighborhoods Committee. “And there really is no list for people who are known to be white supremacists, who are known to be violent.”
CalGang is just one item on a long list of police reforms that need to be heard by the public safety committee, Montgomery said. The committee should review the Police Department’s budget and policies involving surveillance and searches, she said.
“The challenge is that these are all very, very important things that are impacting people’s lives daily. And we have to take them through a system that needs a mentality shift,” she said.
Montgomery sees the power of activism as an option to end the use of CalGang.
Activists pushed for years to stop San Diego police from using the carotid restraint. But it took nationwide protests following Floyd’s death for the city and other local law enforcement agencies to ban its use.
“Continued community advocacy is always another way,” Montgomery said.