Worried that federal immigration authorities could exploit a statewide gang database filled with inaccuracies, California’s outgoing Attorney General Kamala D. Harris has called on Sacramento lawmakers to give the state Department of Justice full control over the database.
In a letter sent Tuesday to legislators, Harris urged state leaders to immediately enact legislation that would grant oversight and management of the database, known as the CalGang Criminal Intelligence System, to the DOJ to ensure that the information in the system is verified using the “strict standards” of the department’s criminal justice information services division.
A highly critical report released earlier this year by the California State Auditor showed that as a result of “weak oversight,” the database contains questionable information that may violate the privacy rights of individuals in the database.
The heightened sense of urgency felt by Harris, legal experts and immigration advocates to gain tighter control over the database comes with President-elect Donald J. Trump just weeks from taking office. Trump has vowed to ramp up deportations and focus specifically on unauthorized immigrants with criminal records and reputed gang ties.
“At a time when the stakes have never been higher, it is critical that action be taken to safeguard Californians from undue persecution. It is my hope that our state legislative leadership acts quickly to rectify this threat,” wrote Harris in her letter to Senate President pro Tempore, Kevin de León, and Speaker of the Assembly, Anthony Rendon.
The move was praised by critics of CalGang who earlier this month called for a moratorium on the use of the database until a set of recommendations issued by the state auditor to address the database’s flaws are implemented.
“It’s an acknowledgement by the attorney general - the top cop in the state - that the data in the CalGang database, just like the audit found, is often unverified or corrupt data,” said Josh Green, a staff attorney and criminal justice program manager at the Los Angeles-based Urban Peace Institute, which works to reduce and prevent community violence.
“…The fact that the attorney general, herself, has acknowledged that… — I think that’s a huge step. That’s a paradigm shift,” said Green.
Earlier this month, the Urban Peace Institute and the ACLU of Southern California also called on Harris to cancel a California Department of Justice agreement that allows federal immigration enforcement agents to search the state-financed CalGang database.
Although the Department of Justice acts as the custodian of CalGang and funds a contract to maintain the database, it does not currently provide any oversight. That oversight falls to a CalGang executive board and a subcommittee, whose members are elected by the law enforcement agencies that use the database.
CalGang is supposed to be used by police as a source and investigatory tool to track youth and adults alleged to be gang members. The state requires that in order for a law enforcement officer to enter an individual into the database, at least two of 10 criteria must be met. Those include an individual admitting gang membership or being arrested with known gang members for offenses that are “consistent with gang activity."
Other criteria include wearing “gang dress” or having gang tattoos, as well as frequenting gang areas. Civil rights and defense attorneys say such criteria are subjective and can lead to misclassification and racial profiling of youth of color based on how they look and where they live.
Among other things, the state auditor found in its investigation that in some cases law enforcement agencies put individuals in the database without adequate evidence; failed to purge CalGang records that had not been updated within five years; and poorly implemented a state law requiring that juveniles and their parents are notified before the minor is placed in the database.
In her letter, Harris made it clear that she expects a combative relationship with the Trump administration.
“In particular, there are justified concerns about whether information systems maintained by California law enforcement agencies could be exploited by the federal government to fulfill potential deportation policy objectives that are the sole province of the federal government and are inconsistent with California's compelling interest in ensuring public safety for all our residents,” wrote Harris.
Harris is particularly concerned that information about immigrants who don’t have criminal records has been erroneously entered into CalGang. Federal immigration authorities could in turn use this “inaccurate information” to take enforcement actions against these individuals, she noted.
“We need to ensure that immigrant communities are not deterred from reporting criminal conduct and violent criminals are not emboldened to aggressively victimize California's immigrant communities — including thousands of our residents who provide valuable contributions to our state's culture and economy,” wrote Harris.
Yvette Cabrera is a long-time Orange County journalist and Voice of OC contributing writer. You can reach her directly at email@example.com.