Targeted, Labeled, Criminalized: Early Findings on the District of Columbia’s Gang Database

News release

Civil Rights Groups Report: Secret DC Gang Database Criminalizes Predominantly Black and Brown Neighborhoods by Labelling Residents as “Gang Members” or “Gang Associates”

The report’s authors urge DC Council to pass legislation dismantling the ineffective, racially discriminatory surveillance system and launch an educational campaign to protect First Amendment rights.

WASHINGTON – Membership in the DC Gang Database is a better proxy for race and zip code than for criminality, according to a new report released today by a coalition of civil rights groups. The organizations that authored the report, entitled “Targeted, Labeled, Criminalized: Early Findings on the District of Columbia’s Gang Database,” are the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Chicago Justice Project, Black Swan Academy, Civil Rights Corps, and National Immigration Project. The report was additionally contributed to by Upturn and the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

The report describes the secret Gang Tracking and Analysis System, the official name for the DC Gang Database, as a racially discriminatory surveillance system without real procedural safeguards to protect the civil liberties of DC Black and Brown residents. Further, the database proves to be an ineffective tool to address crime, as records demonstrate numerous inaccuracies. The list of 1,951 individuals deemed “gang members” or “gang associates,” frequently includes people for whom there is no particularized suspicion of criminal activity. As of October 19, 2022, 83 percent (1,619) of those in the database were Black, 12 percent (288) were Latinx, and .05 percent (one) was White. Underscoring the arbitrariness of the surveillance, the database contains a one-year-old baby.

“The District’s gang database is stop and frisk policing with a twist that swallows entire families and neighborhoods,” said Carlos Andino, Associate Counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “In certain predominantly Black or Brown communities, you or I could be included in the gang database because we are friends with someone deemed a gang member or your cousin is in the system. Once you’ve been labeled a ‘gang associate,’ in your next interaction with law enforcement, there’s a pretext to stop or chase you down.”

In a report generated through litigation over multiple DC Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and collaboration with DC Councilmembers and the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, the key findings highlight the ways the DC Gang Database is an unconstitutional, and inaccurate surveillance system that targets entire Black and Brown communities.

  • Under the DC Code, to be deemed a “gang” requires that a group of individuals be actively involved in violent crime or bases its membership on the intent to commit crimes. Inclusion in the DC Gang Database requires neither, in clear contradiction of the law.
  • MPD does not inform individuals of their inclusion in the DC Gang Database; does not have a process for individuals to contest or appeal inclusion; and does not regularly review or purge faulty designations.
  • At least 22 outside entities received information from the DC Gang Database. These entities can then use this information as a basis to deny employment or housing; expel or suspend students from school; or affect a person’s asylum status.
  • Police officers are instructed that inclusion in the database alone, regardless of whether law enforcement has information to believe the individual is involved in a crime, provides probable cause to conduct a stop.
  • Before ever being convicted of a crime, youth, 19 percent of the 2021 database, face severe consequences, such as placement outside of the home or homelessness, pretrial detention, and school expulsion.
  • During public education events, community members shared accounts of police harassment and accusations of gang affiliation, straining community relations necessary to encourage witness participation in fighting actual crimes.

To address fundamental flaws of the DC Gang Database and reduce its racially disparate impact, the report authors propose seven next steps:

  • Pass legislation dismantling the DC Gang Database.
  • Require the MPD to notify all individuals ever included in the gang database of potential impacts.
  • Mandate that all DC agencies delete data in their possession originating from the DC Gang Database.
  • Require MPD to send notice to all external recipients of data from the DC Gang Database requesting that all relevant information be deleted.
  • Pass legislation prohibiting adverse actions by DC agencies against individuals solely based on personal associations, in accordance with protections provided by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
  • Pass legislation prohibiting government surveillance based strictly on personal association or a protected classes in accordance with the DC Human Rights Act.
  • Reject legislation, such as the Addressing Crime Trends (ACT) Now Amendment Act of 2023, that calls for the criminalization of residents based solely on their personal associations.

The researchers plan to brief targeted communities about the DC Gang Database. Three central questions will drive the educational campaign: why the gang database matters; how residents can find out if they are in the system; and what to do if they are unfairly stopped, searched, charged, or detained. The goal of the initiative is to protect residents’ right to free speech and association and due process.

Read the entire report here.

Download the materials on the DC Gang Database from MPD.

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The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs works to create legal, economic, and social equity through litigation, client and public education and public policy advocacy. While we fight discrimination against all people, we recognize the central role that current and historic race discrimination plays in sustaining inequity and recognize the critical importance of identifying, exposing, combatting, and dismantling the systems that sustain racial oppression.

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