Gang database: Just how accurate, how fair?

Critics raise questions about the secret list, including who’s on it
By Mara H. Gottfried for Pioneer Press
Updated: 09/20/2009 11:15:50 AM CDT

It’s called GangNet, but it snares people who are not gang members.

It was created about the same time as a state gang database, but it’s six times larger and its standards are less exacting than the state list. It’s easier to get into GangNet and you stay in it three times longer than you do the state list.

The names are not public. And those who claim they are mislabeled as gang members say they can’t get off the list.

“There was no way to find out why they made the claim,” defense lawyer Bruce Nestor says of cases he has encountered involving what he believes was GangNet. “There’s no way to challenge it once you’re in the database.”

Created by the Ramsey County sheriff’s office in 1998 and used by officers around the state, the GangNet database is not authorized by state law, as is the Minnesota Gang Pointer File, a database of confirmed gang members created in 1997.

Being recorded in GangNet can have far-reaching effects on people’s lives. The Ramsey County sheriff’s office uses the database to deny people permits to carry handguns and the information can be used in criminal cases.

To complicate matters, even top local law enforcement leaders appear to be unclear about the databases their departments are using — they refer to GangNet and the Pointer File interchangeably and seem uncertain about the differences.

One way to get into either database: being photographed supposedly with gang members.

The recently disbanded Metro Gang
Strike Force regularly photographed “children and others with no known gang connections,” according to a recent independent review of the unit, which didn’t get into what officers did with the photos. Some have raised concerns about whether strike force officers wrongly put people who aren’t gang members into databases.

How strike force officers documented reputed gang members is “a legitimate area of inquiry,” said Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is starting a fresh audit of the Pointer File, and because most of the data was coming from the strike force, staff will “see if anything comes out of it,” Campion said.

However, police chiefs and sheriffs around the state say the databases provide “valuable information” that has “helped to prevent and solve crimes,” including homicides, Campion said.

Pointer File / The origins of both gang databases go back more than a decade.

In 1997, the Legislature enacted a law setting up the “Criminal Gang Investigative Data System.” The Minnesota Gang Strike Force, the predecessor of the Metro Gang Strike Force, was also born that year.

The law said the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension would create and maintain “a computerized criminal gang investigative data system for the purpose of assisting criminal justice agencies in the investigation and prosecution of criminal activity by gang members.”

To be entered into the system, which came to be known as the Minnesota Gang Pointer File, someone had to be 14 or older, have been convicted of a gross misdemeanor or felony, and meet three of 10 criteria developed by the Gang and Drug Oversight Council, a state law enforcement coordinating panel.

“The thinking at the time was to create a system that would codify subjective information that officers had, in a way that there could be a fair determination whether or not a person was a gang member,” said Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who along with other law enforcement personnel presented information to the Legislature in 1997 about criteria being used elsewhere.

Officers who run a name in the Pointer File and get a hit will see an alert telling them the information about a person being a gang member is not probable cause to pull the person over, arrest him or search him.

The BCA periodically audits the Pointer File, as described in state law, to determine “validity, completeness and accuracy of data submitted.”

The last audit was in 2007, when 219 of 2,052 files were checked, said Andy Skoogman, Department of Public Safety spokesman. There were 187 “successful audits,” an 85 percent success rate, he said.

The “unsuccessful audits” involved “discrepancies” in documentation, such as an entry describing a person’s gang tattoo on the left arm when it was on the right, Skoogman said.

Skoogman said an audit — which compares the database with information in individual files — could turn up people misidentified as gang members, but he said he couldn’t confirm that without checking voluminous files individually.

Gangnet / After the Pointer File was created, “it was clear we needed to have a system in place to collect the data prior to the three of 10 criteria being met,” Fletcher said.

The Ramsey County sheriff’s office started GangNet in 1998 with a grant from the Department of Public Safety.

“GangNet is a repository of people who have started to meet the criteria,” said sheriff’s office director Steve Lydon, who administers GangNet. “It doesn’t mean you’re a gang member just because you’re in GangNet. People in the Pointer system have been determined to be a gang member by Minnesota statute.”

For example, if someone is 14 or older and meets one of 10 criteria established for the Pointer File, a law enforcement officer could enter that person into GangNet. If the same person is later convicted of a gross misdemeanor or felony, and comes to meet two more criteria, the information would be forwarded for entry in the Pointer File.

Fletcher said the Pointer File has a higher threshold for entry in part because more people in law enforcement, including prosecutors and probation officers, can access the information.

The sheriff’s office limits the number of people in a police or sheriff’s office who can access GangNet information, Fletcher said.

If a prosecutor wants to charge someone with a “crime to benefit a gang,” which increases a potential sentence, an officer could use GangNet or the Pointer File to research gang involvement and inform the prosecutor, Fletcher said.

Phil Carruthers, director of the Ramsey County attorney’s office’s prosecution division, said his office relies on facts that demonstrate the 10-point criteria and not the mere existence of an entry about a suspect in a gang database. Prosecutors have to prove the facts “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal case and the defense can dispute evidence that prosecutors present, Carruthers said.

James Shelton Jr. / Growing up in St. Paul’s Summit-University neighborhood, James Shelton Jr. faced pressure to join a gang. He says he never did.

Now 22 and studying criminal justice at Metropolitan State University, Shelton wants to become a probation officer.

He said his professors encouraged him not to be afraid of guns, so he applied to the St. Paul Police Department for a permit to buy a handgun. He was approved.

Shelton applied for a permit to carry a handgun March 24.

The Ramsey County sheriff’s office denied the permit in an April 21 letter, citing, among other reasons: “a domestic in 2004 and your inclusion in the criminal gang investigative data system.”

The gang accusation shocked Shelton, who has never been convicted of more than a traffic offense, and his father, James Shelton Sr.

“I said, ‘They think you’re a gang member,’ ” said the elder Shelton, a Metro State professor active in the community. “I was more upset about that than the gun denial. How many other people’s kids are on there and don’t know? We would have never known if he hadn’t applied for a permit to carry.”

Shelton appealed in an April 28 letter to Fletcher.

He wrote that he was arrested as a juvenile in the “domestic,” but “I was never prosecuted, I was never charged, I was never convicted.” Court records confirm this.

He continued to say that he’d never been a gang member.

The elder Shelton, formerly president of the St. Paul Urban League and St. Paul NAACP, spoke with a sergeant in the St. Paul police gang unit, who told him they had a picture of the younger Shelton “with some gang members,” the letter said.

The sheriff’s office denied Shelton’s appeal in a May 12 letter.

One of the 10 criteria for the Pointer File and GangNet is being in a photo with known gang members. The data in the system is confidential, so Fletcher said he couldn’t comment about whether Shelton is in GangNet.

But because the younger Shelton does not have felony or gross misdemeanor convictions and a photo was mentioned, it seems his name was entered into GangNet, not the Pointer File.

The sheriff’s office uses information about whether an applicant is in GangNet to determine if that person is a substantial risk under Minnesota’s handgun carry permit law, Fletcher said.

Shelton didn’t appeal in court because he thought he’d already spent enough money on application fees for permits, purchasing a gun and taking a class.

He said he’s upset: “It feels like my future’s being molded by other people.”

Being in GangNet can haunt an individual for a long time — 10 years, to be exact.

For the Pointer File, state law directs that data be destroyed if three years have elapsed and a person has no new convictions or met no new criteria. The Pointer File is purged of names about four times a year, said Bob Bushman, statewide coordinator of gang and drug task forces.

For GangNet, a person must meet no new criteria for 10 years before being purged. Fletcher said his office developed the 10-year policy in line with Minnesota’s data-retention schedules. An individual can ask to be removed from the database after five years, according to the policy developed by the sheriff’s office.

But if the information is confidential, how would a person know to ask? Fletcher said if an individual inquires, the office would provide all the information, unless it was about an active investigation.

Judge Rejects Use Of Data / Defense attorney Bruce Nestor said that, in at least two cases, he represented people alleged to be gang members, but they “had no criminal conviction whatsoever” and police “could provide no objective basis for knowing the person was a gang member.” Both were immigration cases.

One issue came up at a bond hearing. The judge set bond and would not rely on assertions that the person was a gang member, Nestor said. In the other, a client of Nestor’s was denied a visa at the U.S. Consulate in Mexico on the grounds that he was a gang member. The man wouldn’t have met the criteria to be in the Pointer File, Nestor said.

Both the Pointer File and GangNet require that law enforcement keep hard evidence to document suspected gang membership — photographs, police reports or other documentation, said Lydon of the Ramsey County sheriff’s office.

The sheriff’s office regularly audits GangNet to make sure information is accurate and documented, Lydon said.

While local law enforcement agencies may have their own systems to track potential gang members, GangNet and the Pointer File are the only gang databases that agencies across the state use, Fletcher said. Ninety-six agencies use GangNet, Lydon said.

The St. Paul police gang unit recently began its own field interview system that lets gang officers keep computerized information about potential gang members, said police Senior Cmdr. Joe Neuberger, in charge of the Special Investigations Unit.

The information is not probable cause for a search warrant or arrest, he said. It’s stored on an internal server and is not linked to other cities, Neuberger said.

Minneapolis police have a database to track gang members, and other departments cannot access it independently, said Sgt. Jesse Garcia III, department spokesman.

‘Secret’ Database / At recent community meetings in St. Paul, people expressed concerns about the 10-point criteria used to determine gang membership for the Pointer File and GangNet. Some say the benchmarks are too subjective. The criteria include:

# Being observed to associate regularly with known gang members.

# Being identified as a gangster by a reliable source.

# Being arrested in the company of gang members or associates.

Another point raised at these meetings: the absence of a notification procedure when people have been entered into the Pointer File or GangNet, particularly for parents of juveniles considered gang members.

And the people in both databases are largely minorities: 55 percent in the Pointer File and 42 percent in GangNet were black, as of November.

No one disputes that law enforcement needs to investigate and track gang members. But they want to make sure that people in gang databases actually belong there.

“The community wants to feel safe,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, a University of St. Thomas law professor and director of the law school’s Community Justice Project. “We want to balance the public safety issue with making sure people aren’t being falsely labeled or profiled.”

“GangNet has been sort of like a secret for a lot of people,” said Rich Neumeister, a citizen recognized for his work on privacy and civil liberties issues, who pushed for more accountability when the Pointer File legislation was on the table.

Why has that been the case? “Nobody has asked the questions,” Neumeister said.

Injunctions And Reaction / Nathaniel Khaliq, president of the NAACP’s St. Paul branch, reached out to Levy-Pounds to convene community meetings about people being unjustly labeled gang members.

St. Paul was the first city in the state to seek a temporary injunction against reputed gang members. Using information from gang databases, judges last spring restricted 13 alleged gang members during Cinco de Mayo and 18 people said to be rival gang members during the Rondo Days Festival.

Police said the injunctions worked, with no violence reported at either festival.

St. Paul community meetings in July and August each drew 40 to 50 people who sought information from police and other officials about gang databases.

Levy-Pounds and her students are researching the state law with a closer look at the 10-point criteria.

Khaliq, Levy-Pounds and others who attended the meetings said they believe some points are too subjective.

Campion said concerns should be listened to.

“We want to work with the community and do something other than put them in jail,” said Assistant St. Paul Police Chief Nancy Di Perna, who attended both community meetings.

A community work group is meeting to decide what steps to take next, Levy-Pounds said.

Action From Legislators? / State Sen. Mee Moua, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she asked the ranking minority member of the panel, Republican Sen. Warren Limmer, of Maple Grove, to start collecting information about law enforcement databases in the state.

“We think there is a public safety value to being smarter about how we collect and maintain information and share information,” said Moua, DFL-St. Paul. “It is extremely important to know how somebody gets inputted into those systems and there are opportunities to get taken out of the system.”

Moua and Limmer said there could be legislative hearings before the next session.

John Brewer contributed to this report. Mara H. Gottfried can be reached at 651-228-5262.
The ABCs of gang intelligence

After a state law in 1997 directed the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to create a database of gang members, a state law enforcement coordinating panel called the Gang and Drug Oversight Council came up with these 10 criteria for inclusion:

1. Admits gang membership or association.

2. Is observed to associate on a regular basis with known gang members.

3. Has tattoos indicating gang membership.

4. Wears gang symbols to identify with a specific gang.

5. Is in a photograph with known gang members and/or using gang-related hand signs.

6. Name is on a gang document, hit list or gang-related graffiti.

7. Is identified as a gang member by a reliable source.

8. Is arrested in the company of identified gang members or associates.

9. Corresponds with known gang members or writes and/or receives correspondence about gang activities.

10. Writes about gangs (graffiti) on walls, books and paper.

Pointer File

What are the criteria for law enforcement to enter a person in the Minnesota Gang Pointer File, the system maintained by the BCA?

# Meet three of the 10 criteria

# Be at least 14 years old

# Have been convicted of a felony or gross misdemeanor

How is someone’s name removed from the Pointer File?

# If there are no new convictions or criteria in three years, the person’s name is purged from the system.

Gangnet / The Ramsey County sheriff’s office created GangNet in 1998 as a repository of information about possible gang members before they meet the criteria for the Pointer File.

What are the criteria for law enforcement to enter a person in GangNet?

# Meet one of the 10 Pointer File criteria

# Be at least 14 years old

# Not required to have been convicted of a felony or gross misdemeanor

How is someone’s name removed from GangNet?

# If there are no new convictions or criteria met in 10 years, the person’s name is purged. If a person is gang-free for five years, he or she can ask the Ramsey County sheriff’s office to remove the name.

— Mara H. Gottfried

3 Comments for “Gang database: Just how accurate, how fair?”

  1. […] Gang database: Just how accurate, how fair? Critics raise questions about the secret list, including who’s… […]

  2. Evelyn

    I would like to know how you can check if someone is in the gangnet database and who can check into that database? thanks,

  3. Evelyn

    I would like more information on the Defense attorney bruce nestor mentioned above. my email is

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