Report calls on new NYPD top cop Dermot Shea to abolish gang database
Public defenders and justice advocates are calling on new NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea to abolish a policing tool he’s strongly defended: the department’s gang database.
The “Erase the Database” campaign, to be launched Thursday, marks the latest in a yearslong effort to end collection of names and monitoring of the estimated 17,500 to 42,000 New Yorkers believed to be in gangs.
A coalition of 10 organizations — including the Legal Aid Society, The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services and the Center for Constitutional Rights — has signed on to the campaign.
The launch coincides with the release of a report by Brooklyn College’s Policing and Social Justice Project that recommends the NYPD eliminate the database, along with the department’s specialized gang units.
“Most young people who engage in serious criminality are already living in harsh and dangerous circumstances,” the report says. “They don’t need more threats and punishment in their lives — they need stability, positive guidance, and real pathways out of poverty. This requires a long-term commitment to their well-being, not a telephone referral and home visits by the same people who arrest and harass them and their friends on the streets.”
Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociology professor and co-author of the report, told THE CITY the aim is to get the City Council to shift resources from policing to investments in youth services.
“We think that’s the way to break the cycle of violence. Not putting more young people in Rikers Island,” he said.
The number of names in the database has been cut by almost half in recent years, said Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokesperson, in an emailed statement Wednesday.
“The safeguards are robust,” said McRorie, and include reviews for each person included every three years and on select birthdays.
“Our goal is to make sure that everyone who is in the database is actually a gang member,” she said. “We are in the era of precision policing. Saturating the database with non-gang members limits its usefulness.”
Use of the database is one of a bundle of strategies that fall under the precision policing framework, which “focuses on finding and arresting these violent actors who weaken the fabric of our neighborhoods through violence and intimidation,” Shea, then the NYPD’s chief of detectives, said at a June 2018 City Council hearing.
Shea argued in a Daily News opinion piece last year that the database is a “necessary tool to combat criminal organizations.”
But those who worked on the Brooklyn College report, including community organizer and writer Josmar Trujillo, say that precision policing is simply a “code word” for papering over the backlash to programs like stop-and-frisk, which disproportionately targeted black and Latino men.
“It is partly a public relations stunt to say, ‘We are getting these bad guys,’” Trujillo added.
The report’s researchers also say that precision policing also isn’t quite as precise as Shea has contended.
“Part of the problem we have with this labeling everything as gang-related is that it’s conflating a lot of really different things that aren’t necessarily related,” Vitale told THE CITY.
‘I was in college’
In 2016, Kraig Lewis, 28, was one of 120 alleged gang members arrested in what then-Manhattan Federal Attorney Preet Bharara called “the largest gang takedown in New York City history” at the Eastchester Gardens public housing complex in The Bronx.
Lewis, however, wasn’t at home. He was studying for his MBA in Connecticut, and asleep with his girlfriend and son when his apartment there was raided by police.
“I was in college,” Lewis told THE CITY. “I wasn’t worried about no damn drugs.”
Lewis and his childhood neighbors were indicted under the RICO act — a law created to tackle organized crime.
But according to a CUNY Law School Report released on the three-year anniversary of the raid, about half of the 120 people indicted were ultimately alleged to be gang members — and 80 weren’t convicted of violence.
After serving 22 months in jail, Lewis ended up pleading down to charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and having once owned a gun. The judge immediately released him
“I was trying to get my degrees, go to law school. How do I end up in federal jail with the hardest charges?” asked Lewis.
He now works to stem violence in his Bronx community at Release the Grip, a program of the nonprofit BronxConnect.
But, Lewis says, he continues to get pulled over by police — even once on the way to a job interview.
“And why? Because I’m in this gang database,” Lewis said.
He is scheduled to speak at the campaign launch and rally at City Hall, to take place at noon on Thursday morning.
The report’s authors and a coalition of non-profit and public defense organizations will also encourage New Yorkers to participate in the Legal Aid Society’s “Do It Yourself” Freedom of Information Law campaign, which has assisted 350 people in asking the NYPD if their names are included in the gang database.
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
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