“It just never, ever has worked”: Activists, law experts question CPD decision to reactivate gang database

After four years, the Chicago Police Department seeks to reactivate their “gang database” despite no proven effectiveness, according to law experts. 

The Criminal Enterprise Information System (CEIS) collects information on individuals who are suspected to be affiliated and/or associated with gangs, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Illinois Attorney General conducted an investigation about its effectiveness and poised questions about racial bias. 

The lawsuit also alleged that individuals lacked due process in that they could not challenge their inclusion in the database,” said Manoj Mate, faculty director of Racial Justice Initiative at the College of Law. “The lawsuit was settled in 2020 after the Chicago police agreed to make many changes and reforms including stricter criteria for identifying individuals as gang members and notice and appeals requirements.”

The criteria for who is considered an alleged gang member varies. Their information is recorded into the database and could be used against someone if they are involved with law enforcement later. 

“When you think about what the way that [databases]have been used it’s really just to collect broad amounts of information on people, oftentimes people who’ve never been accused or convicted of any crime,” said Ed Yohnka, communication director at ACLU of Illinois.

People alleged as gang members can face discrimination even if never convicted. This can affect people of multiple legal statuses when applying for jobs or services.

“If the information is provided to federal immigration authorities, it can also lead to detention and deportation,” Mate said. “In addition, inclusion on the database can also impact the ability to get a job or housing. All of these harms disproportionately impact minority communities.”

Due to inequitable policing patterns, the database becomes overrun by implicit racial bias. This could lead to an overrepresented amount of people from marginalized communities to be recorded. 

“[The] database system is really fundamentally going to be racially biased at its core,” said Sarah Staudt, director of policy at Chicago Appleseed. “Databases are based on police’s subjective views of the people that they encounter, the people that they encounter are much more likely to be Black and Brown because of our policing patterns.”

Black and Brown youth will face discrimination if they encounter law enforcement and are recorded in the system’s database, according to Yohnka.

“It subjects them to a higher level of scrutiny,” he said. “They’re more likely to be questioned. They’re more likely to be targeted by police. for questioning. And that can have an incredibly intimidating impact on people.”

Minor interactions, the neighborhood someone lives in and who you know are all ways someone can get put into the system, according to Yohnka. The criteria is broad and vague which leads to an overload of people on the database making it ineffective. 

“The lack of clear criteria and oversight allows for bias because it means police can add individuals without strong evidence supporting reasonable suspicion,” Mate said. 

The information rarely changes in the system while it may change in real life.

“Identifying somebody’s gang affiliation is guesswork, and it changes over time,” Staudt added. “There’s not a way to keep these databases current. There’s not a way to keep them accurate, and so instead, you got a bunch of junk information.”

Yohnka proposed that police may not be experts in identifying a threat to communities. Instead, they should ask community members. 

“Community members are much better poised and much better positioned to be able to respond to that,” he said. “They’re the people who know who is a possible threat, what that looks like, and you know, how it works for the good of the community.”

Despite the criticisms, CPD has yet to release any guidelines on how they will measure success in the database. 

Law enforcement agencies argue that these databases are necessary to help in policing and preventing instances of retaliation and future crime, but as noted above, the effectiveness of these policies is unclear given that the public is often not given clear data or metrics to assess whether they work,” Mate said. 

CPD has not announced whether they will make any changes to the previous policy around the database.

“It just never ever, ever, has really worked effectively as a tool in terms of a crime fighting device,” Yohnka said. “CPD has never demonstrated that they’ve made any changes in the way they collect or categorize information to assume that it’s going to be effective this time.”