By Henrik Rehbinder
Amid the grief of the loss of her son, Jesse Romero, at the hands of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers, Teresa Dominguez can’t comprehend the death of her 14 year-old and rejects the idea that he was a gang member. Details of what transpired on that tragic afternoon differ between the police report and witnesses’ statements. Up to today, the videos taken by the police involved in the incident have not been viewed nor has it been made public whether Romero was listed in the database of gang members maintained by law enforcement. The decision to keep this information from being released to the public was made by the police.
Whether Romero is on that official list of gang members is important. Under a 2014 statute, police are required to inform the individuals, their parents and guardians before including minors in the database, known as CalGang. This requirement enables those who have been mistakenly included in the list to appeal that placement. It is also helps parents to know what may be happening with their children. All too often a single mother who has the sole responsibility for getting food on the table is unaware of her teenagers’ activities. It is possible that this could have been what happened in the Dominguez case and timely parental notification could have helped prevent the tragedy.
Of significant concern is that the LAPD, which is one of the agencies that utilizes this database, has failed to comply with the requirement to notify parents when their children are listed as gang members. The LAPD, similar to law enforcement in Santa Ana, did not report more than 70% of these cases, according to an analysis of the files of 129 juveniles. This is one of the startling findings of an audit of the CalGang database conducted in August by the State Auditor Elaine Howie. The audit focused on law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties.
One of Howie’s conclusions is that the database, which brings together information on more than 150,000 suspected gang members, suffers from “weaknesses in the processes for entering, evaluating and auditing” the data in CalGang. For example, 42 children under the age of one were entered into the system. In another example, 600 individuals in CalGang had purge dates extending beyond the five-year limit, many of which were not schedule to be purged for more than 100 years. Of the 100 names reviewed by auditors, 13 individuals were included without adequate supporting information. If that percentage is applied to the entire database, more than 19,500 people could potentially be misclassified as having gang ties.
Confusion reigns. The audit also stated that the LAPD is one of three police agencies “that could demonstrate that only one of the nine gangs we reviewed met the requirements of the CalGang policy before entry” into the database.
And, if these concerns were not enough, the audit also found cases in which information drawn from unreliable databases such as CalGang was used –in violation of the rules established– in court proceedings against accused gang members. In addition, such information has been shared employers and the military, destroying the futures of many individuals that should never be on that list.
All of this confirms the complaints voiced by a number of community and civil rights groups concerning the reliability of the identification of a gang member, in essence, the unreliable ways in which clothes, gestures and the company one keeps, among other factors, makes someone a gang member in the eyes of the law. This particularly harms Latinos, who comprise 68% of those on the CalGang list.
It is a positive sign that the LAPD, as well as law enforcement agencies in Santa Ana and Santa Clara, have accepted the audit’s recommendations and will take the steps necessary to implement them. But that is not enough.
As a result of this audit, Democratic Assembly member Shirley Weber has put forth AB 2298, which has already been approved by both legislative chambers and is awaiting the signature of Governor Jerry Brown. The bill requires that adults listed in the CalGang database be notified, just as current law requires notification of minors. It also requires the public release of the number and demographic information of individuals included in the database annually. This information, together with the audit’s recommendations regarding the effective monitoring of data processed at the local and state level, is an appropriate response.
A number of law enforcement organizations oppose AB 2298, arguing that its requirements are onerous and will add to an already full workload. The concern is understandable, but the price paid by minors and adults incorrectly identified is too high. Perhaps having such measures in place would have prevented Teresa Dominguez’s pain. Now it’s a matter of correcting what we know is wrong. The governor must sign the AB 2298.
Henrik Rehbinder is the former editor of the opinion page at La Opinión and an independent writer.