State Auditors Find Problems With How Santa Ana Police Handle Gang Database

Santa Ana Police Department headquarters, which includes the city's jail. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

The Santa Ana Police Department is among several law enforcement agencies statewide that have been entering people into a gang database without proper justification, according to a new report from the California State Auditor’s office.

One of the starkest examples across the so-called CalGang database was the inclusion of dozens of people whose birth dates showed they were less than one year old. Most of these 42 apparent babies were labeled as gang members for supposedly “admitting to being gang members,” auditors said.

The audit looked at four local law enforcement agencies across California: the Santa Ana and Los Angeles police departments; and the sheriff’s departments for Santa Clara and Sonoma counties.

A review of 100 people entered into the database between the four agencies found that 13 had inadequate justification to be included, a 13-percent error rate. With over 150,000 people in the database, even a 2-percent error rate would mean that thousands of people are wrongfully in the system statewide.

Among the 100 people reviewed by auditors, 25 were entered by Santa Ana police. And among those, auditors found that three failed to have proper documentation to justify their inclusion.

While it’s unclear how many people Santa Ana has entered into CalGang, over 10,000 people have been entered into the system by law enforcement across Orange County.

As a result of these errors, law enforcement agencies “are tracking some people in CalGang without adequate justification, potentially violating their privacy rights,” State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote in a letter about the report to Gov. Jerry Brown and other top lawmakers in Sacramento.

“Further, by not reviewing information as required, CalGang’s governance and user agencies have diminished the system’s crime-fighting value.”

(Click here to read the letter and audit report.)

A person’s inclusion in the system can have serious consequences, auditors found, such as being cited in expert opinions that people were or were not gang members, according to the auditors.

And it can affect employment prospects. Three of the four law enforcement agencies auditors examined said they used the CalGang database “for employment or military‐related screenings,” the report states.

“These instances emphasize that inclusion in CalGang has the potential to seriously affect an individual’s life; therefore, each entry must be accurate and appropriate,” auditors wrote.

Auditors also called out Santa Ana’s notifications to juveniles that they’ve been added to the database, which have been required under state law since 2014.

Santa Ana’s notifications were found to be “inadequate” because they didn’t provide “the specific criteria the agency used for identifying juveniles as members of gangs.

At the same time, auditors found that Santa Ana police exceed state requirements by notifying parents about their child’s inclusion in the system. And Santa Ana’s process for handling complaints alleging a wrongful inclusion are “a best practice that we believe could be the basis for statewide standards,” auditors wrote.

In a statement to Voice of OC, the Santa Ana Police Department said it welcomed the audit and is already implementing the auditors’ recommendations.

“We are committed to identifying the staff and funding necessary to meet the remaining requirements to ensure the system remains a viable law enforcement tool while continuing to protect the rights and privacy of those identified for entry into the system,” says the statement, sent by the department’s spokesman, Cpl. Anthony Bertagna.

The statement also said that many of the problems found by auditors were due to “data entry errors,” but that people were properly included in the system due to evidence that just wasn’t in CalGang.

“The Santa Ana Police Department believes all criminal street gangs and gang members were entered using proper supported and documentation criteria, which was provided to the State Auditor’s Office,” department officials wrote.

(Click here to read the department’s full statement.)

In a letter to auditors, Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas said the recommendations that would be implemented are: reviewing alleged gangs and gang members entered into CalGang to ensure there’s proper justification for their inclusion, purging any groups or alleged members who don’t meet the criteria, and changing its CalGang policy to ensure it follows state law, federal regulations, and state guidelines.

Activists say the audit findings support their longstanding contention that Latino youths are being improperly labeled as gang members by law enforcement.

“We do see that the CalGang database is being misused and is violating people’s [civil] rights and privacy rights,” said Abraham Medina, director of the advocacy group Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color.

“When police officers are actively placing babies in the CalGang database, the question is who is supervising these officers…it shows the need for transparency and accountability,” he added.

The gang database has also been criticized as using criteria to include people that is broad and often indistinguishable from the markers of neighborhoods and communities impacted by gang activity.

In one case, a minor teenager was added to the database after being detained for being out past curfew as his friends walked him to the bus station on his way home, his attorney told Voice of OC for a story earlier this year. Police found no weapons, no drugs, no gang tattoos and made no arrests, according to the attorney, Josh Green.

Bertagna said Chief Rojas was traveling Friday and unavailable for an interview.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.