A recent federal appeals court ruling reignited public debate about the legitimacy of the Boston Police Department’s gang database. For years, community organizations have argued for dismantling the Boston Regional Intelligence Center Gang Database because it is costly to operate, ineffective, racially unjust, and runs afoul of individuals’ civil liberties. It should be abolished now.
The appeals court sided with the petitioner, Cristian Josue Diaz Ortiz, a Salvadoran native whose application for immigration asylum had been denied in good part because he was identified, possibly erroneously, in the gang database as a “verified” member of M-13, a notorious and violent criminal enterprise with origins in El Salvador. In granting Ortiz’s petition for new immigration proceedings, the federal court found that because of its use of unverified information and “its reliance on an erratic point system built on unsubstantiated inferences,” the database was unreliable.
The database, which costs more than $8 million in public funds to operate each year, was first introduced in 1993 in response to the surge in violence that accompanied the crack epidemic. Since then, there has been little to no evidence that the database has helped to solve any violent crime or kept any community safe. Further, despite dramatically declining rates of violence in Boston and across Massachusetts throughout the late 1990s and into the 2000s, which obviates the need for such a tool, the database has remained intact. Why?
The gang database offers police and prosecutors wide discretion to over-police, criminalize, and punish young brown and, especially, Black men more harshly. There are 3,406 people in the data base, approximately one half of 1 percent of Boston’s population. But because roughly three-quarters of those in the database are Black, the impact the database has on the Black community is much greater. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that roughly 11 to 12 percent of Boston’s young Black men ages 18 to 34 are on that list. Accusations of gang membership have increasingly been leveled against immigrant adolescents from Latin American as well.
While the database’s racial disparities can, in part, be attributed to the fact that a higher percentage of Black and Latino youth and adults than whites are in gangs and are also disproportionately represented among victims and offenders of violence, no doubt some part of their disproportionate representation also has roots in the BPD’s racially biased 10-point “verification system,” which, like many other such databases, has criteria that are so vast, vague, and dubious — including contact with a known gang associate, being in a photograph with a known gang associate, or information from an anonymous informant or tipster — that many with little or no gang affiliation can find themselves on the list. Indeed, using this 10-point “verification system,” we now know that the 3,850 who have recently been in the database represent 160 “documented gangs,” including over 100 active gangs. If this is true, it suggests that Boston is a veritable gangland relative to other cities with much stronger gang reputations. Chicago reports half the number of gangs as Boston, and New York, with 17,500 reported gang members, has fewer gang members per capita than Boston.
Further, being labeled a gang member has serious and long-lasting negative consequences. Based on flimsy evidence, being a “verified” gang member brings significant and negative consequences. It can lead to school exclusions and deportations, as Ortiz’s case illustrates; justify stopping and frisking individuals without cause, a condition made all the more possible by the Supreme Judicial Court’s recent Bailey-Sweeting ruling. If arrested, individuals can expect increased likelihood of pre-adjudication supervision; if prosecuted, they can expect an increased likelihood of conviction; if convicted, they can expect harsher penalties, including lengthier sentences and worse prison conditions. And since gang membership or association impacts probation supervision level and treatment, being named on the database can make the reentry process far more difficult. Thus, the gang database does harm to the individuals and communities that are targeted for its brand of intervention while doing little to improve public safety in those communities.
Boston is one of many cities to rely on a gang database, but a growing awareness of the racially inequitable harms inherent in such a system has led some cities to eliminate them altogether (Portland, Ore.) or dramatically narrow the criteria and trim the numbers of those on the list (New York).
As Boston reckons with its own anti-Black racism, the Boston Police Department seems willing to consider reforms to the system. Indeed, some 600 names were removed from the list, and an improved due process system has been promised. In this moment of racial reckoning, however, nothing less than the elimination of the gang database — an instrument of racial oppression — will do. Hopefully, Mayor Michelle Wu will keep her campaign promise and begin the process to abolish the database without further delay.
Sandra Susan Smith is a professor of criminal justice at the Harvard Kennedy School. Felix Owusu is a postdoctoral fellow at the Program in Criminal Justice, Harvard Kennedy School. Stacey Borden is executive director at New Beginnings Reentry Services.