Databases one effort to fight criminal gang activity

Attorneys, police, legislators and even suspected gang members have weighed in on the troubles of efforts to fight street gangs in the Twin Cities, and on Thursday night an effort to hear from the public on the scandal surrounding the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force will release its findings.

The Community Justice Project at the University of St. Thomas and the St. Paul NAACP has the latest response to controversial gang-fighting efforts in the Twin Cities.

The two sponsored a pair of town meetings, set up a community advisory panel and even did an informal survey in response to allegations of misconduct among police investigating street gangs.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, director of the Community Justice Program and a law professor, said public concern has focused on a little-known aspect of fighting gangs -- a pair of secret police databases on gang activity.

"There is a legitimate public safety concern in being able to identify people who are actively and seriously involved in gang activity."

"One is the Minnesota criminal gang pointer file," Levy-Pounds said.

This file reportedly has about 2,000 names. It's maintained by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and it has a formal set of rules about who goes on the list.

"There were 10 different criteria, and a person must meet three of those criteria, must be at least 14 years of age, and must be convicted of a gross misdemeanor or a felony," Levy-Pounds said.

The other database is called GangNet, and it's run by the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office. GangNet is thought to contain as many as 16,000 names. It uses similar criteria, but has a lower threshold to be included in the list.

Levy-Pounds said allegations of misconduct and corruption among some members of the Metro Gang Strike Force have raised alarms in the Twin Cities about who's on police gang lists and why -- particularly on GangNet.

"There is a legitimate public safety concern in being able to identify people who are actively and seriously involved in gang activity, but we think it has gone far beyond the original intent behind the creation of GangNet," Levy-Pounds said. "How is it that there are over 16,000 names? And it's unclear who has the authority to put names into the system. There's just something wrong with that."

The Ramsey County Sheriff's department declined to comment on GangNet, but officials have said in the past that they need a place to track gang activity that hasn't yet met the threshold of the state system. State officials are currently reviewing their gang pointer file.

The database debate is a new facet to the long-unfolding Gang Strike Force scandal.

Back in May, a state audit questioned how the 35-officer gang unit was handling money, vehicles and other property that police seized from people suspected to be involved in gang or drug activity.

A state-funded investigation later found some officers allegedly took property for their personal use.

The FBI has opened a criminal investigation into the now-disbanded Strike Force, and a series of lawsuits were filed against the Twin Cities police agencies that assigned officers to the unit.

But Nathaniel Khaliq, head of the St. Paul NAACP, said the police files that identify and define gang members are central to the Gang Strike Force scandal.

"What we're dealing with has given to these individuals the opportunity to abuse their power," Khaliq said. "Because that could easily go out and identify and label anyone as a gang member based on a loose, 10-point criteria."

Khaliq said there may be other consequences that don't make headlines like the Gang Strike Force. He said people in the gang files might be wrongfully denied jobs, draw unwarranted police attention or be subject to additional, unjust criminal penalties in court.

The report being issued Thursday will call for public oversight of the process for identifying gang members.

Khaliq said the system has to have citizen participation if it's ever going to be fixed.

"I think at some level, law enforcement needs the necessary tools, but above all the communities have to be assured that their constitutional rights are going to be protected," he said. "It's not just going to be in the hands of a few individuals to make these arbitrary decisions that have far reaching consequences."

The report said authorities could achieve that with a number of steps.

They include telling people if they are listed in a gang database, offering them the opportunity to challenge a listing and telling parents if their children are listed, so that they might intervene or get help for a son or daughter.

The full report will be presented at a public meeting at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul.