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Ganging up on the gang database

What to do with the Boston Police Department’s gang database has emerged as the first substantive difference between the two candidates for Suffolk district attorney.

It’s early days, but there is already a major difference between the two men running for Suffolk district attorney: What to do with the Boston Police Department’s gang database.

City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who announced his candidacy for DA a few weeks ago, wants to abolish the database, saying it is irredeemably flawed.

Kevin Hayden, a former prosecutor whom Governor Charlie Baker appointed as DA to replace Rachael Rollins after she became US attorney, wants to keep the job and wants to keep the database, seeing it as a useful tool for law enforcement.

In an interview, Hayden said he was open to reforms, emphasized that racial profiling can’t be used to compile the list, but added he considers the database part of a “focused deterrence” strategy which identifies not just potential perpetrators of violence but potential victims.

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In a separate interview, Arroyo said the database unfairly targets young people of color, labeling them, sometimes mistakenly, criminalizing them on the basis of a subjective, inherently biased point system. He and other critics cite a recent federal appeals court decision that dismissed the criteria used to place someone on the list as being too ambiguous.

Hayden considers the database one of the tools that has helped Boston police keep the city’s homicide rate from spiking, as it has in many American cities, but thinks the database should be subject to constant analysis for accuracy and fairness.

According to Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a police spokesman, 14 of the 40 homicides in Boston last year were gang-related, more than a third of the individuals arrested for firearms were in the database, and nearly a third of shooting suspects arrested were in the database.

Law enforcement officials argue that the list of 3,400 suspected gang members and associates is some 90 percent Black and Hispanic because those are the two biggest demographic groups who belong to gangs. Basically, it’s the same reason a list of suspected Mafia members and their associates would be dominated by Italian-Americans.

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Arroyo, a former public defender, says he has had clients whose names appeared in the database when they were demonstrably not gang members.

While being on the list might bring a higher degree of law enforcement scrutiny, individuals are arrested for their actions, not their gang affiliations. But Arroyo said federal authorities have used mere inclusion in the database as grounds for deportation.

Supporters of focused deterrence note that being in the database doesn’t just mark someone for law enforcement scrutiny and potential arrest, and say that suspected gang members are often referred to social services and other interventions that can positively impact their lives.

Arroyo said he’s seen no empirical evidence that the database has helped reduce crime.

“Nobody has explained why it has to exist in this form,” he said. “It doesn’t build community trust. It hurts community trust.”

Arroyo says the database lacks transparency, that someone who is mistakenly on the gang list wouldn’t even know, because the list is not public record.

That’s a legitimate complaint. The police periodically purge names from the list. Last year, 609 names were removed from the list, which numbers about 3,400, while 59 were added.

While constant vigilance about the list is essential, it is hard to dispute that the city’s anti-gang efforts have contributed to a lower level of violence compared to other cities.

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Dan Linskey, the former chief superintendent of the Boston Police Department, has a novel idea to address the issue of transparency: Notify individuals who are entered into the database. Those with a legitimate grievance can challenge the designation. Those who might be naively or innocently associating with gang members will get a heads up. And actual gang members will be put on notice.

“I think there is a benefit to all that they are told they are on the radar screen,” Linskey said.

Arroyo has some legitimate points, but Hayden’s idea of constant analysis and reform where needed seems more prudent.

Like the “Defund the Police” movement, abolishing the gang database seems an extreme reaction to legitimate grievance.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.