Delete the NYPD gang database

During the last eight years, the NYPD has framed the city’s violence problems as increasingly “gang related.” They have doubled the size of the gang unit, engaged in widespread social media surveillance of young people, and undertaken large-scale “gang takedowns” relying on questionable claims of wide-ranging criminal conspiracies.

These tactics have dramatically expanded the number of people in the city’s secretive gang database. But they haven’t made our city any safer. That is why Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso and Carlina Rivera have introduced legislation to ban the use of such databases.

The NYPD gang database is a secret list that police have been forced to admit is more than 99% Black and non-white New Yorkers whom police assert are gang members. The NYPD says it is part of its “precision policing” efforts to narrowly target those involved in serious criminal activity. Instead, the constant surveillance, inclusion in conspiracy cases, enhanced criminal penalties and other consequences related to the database outline a strategy of racialized suppression in communities police claim they’re working to serve.

An alleged member of the Chico gang is taken into the NYPD’s 25th Precinct stationhouse after members of the NYPD Manhattan North Violent Crime Squad executed a search warrant for members of the gang on Wednesday, August 18, in Manhattan, New York. (Barry Williams/for New York Daily News)

These tactics continue cycles of injustice. Tayshana Murphy, for example, was a high school basketball standout who in 2011 was the fatal victim of gun violence amid a longstanding feud between two public housing developments. In 2014, her brother, Taylonn Murphy Jr., was indicted in what was at the time the largest gang raid in city history. The raid was launched in response to Tayshana’s death and other acts of violence

Taylonn’s trial didn’t include any physical evidence. Rather, prosecutors used social media posts and his alleged gang affiliation to score a questionable conviction. A family had to endure a daughter’s death, and then a son was lost to the criminal punishment system. Today, West Harlem continues to be plagued by violence as dozens who were swept up in the raid either languish in prisons, where violence and gangs are further imprinted onto people, or come home with nothing changed.

The criteria for ending up on the database are vague and not subject to any oversight. People don’t know if they are on the list and cannot challenge their inclusion. Parents aren’t informed either. Cops can label someone a gangbanger because they hang out in a “known gang location” or wear certain colors.

This is a national issue. A report by Chicago’s inspector general found Chicago’s gang database filled with inaccuracies and shared with immigration officials. An audit of the California gang database found wild errors in the database including the inclusion of infants. A recent scandal in Los Angeles revealed officers falsely labeled people. Is the NYPD engaging in similar misconduct? A report from the NYPD’s inspector general expected later this month may answer that.

An alleged member of the Chico gang is taken into custody after members of the NYPD Manhattan North Violent Crime Squad executed a search warrant for members of the gang on Wednesday, August 18, in Manhattan, New York. (Barry Williams/for New York Daily News)

Inclusion in the database can mean intensive surveillance, police harassment, overcharging, increased bail, risk of deportation and prejudicial treatment in court: a separate track of justice based on an allegation that doesn’t even have to be proven. Despite claims that the database isn’t being shared, the NYPD has coordinated “gang takedowns” with federal agencies.

This approach cannot be reformed. The NYPD has a long history of ignoring and subverting reforms. And there is no “better” database. The database — like stop-and-frisk before it — doesn’t make us safer; it has been fully operational amid rises in shootings and violence.

Interpersonal violence in Black, Brown and underserved communities is not simply a “gang” problem but an economic, social and political one. Lack of resources and opportunities exacerbate conflicts and lead people to feel like they have few choices. The lack of safe spaces for young people and access to mentorship and guidance are few and far between.

This is where the city should put its resources — not databases.

Our bill to end the gang database closes a pipeline of needless criminalization and puts the focus on community-based violence reduction initiatives rather than failed police-centered strategies. While the city has added some anti-violence programs, they’re a drop in the bucket compared to what’s spent on policing.

In Harlem, the Tayshana Chicken Murphy Foundation works with individuals who were indicted in the 2014 raid. The foundation, which employs young men who’ve returned from prison, engages with families and at-risk individuals on re-entry services, conflict resolution and other needed interventions. During the pandemic, they distributed food, PPE and even provided shelter. This is how you enhance public safety: giving residents choices, platforms and opportunities by meeting their basic needs.

We are concerned about the violence in our communities. We want solutions that will end the bloodshed on our streets while also treating our young people with dignity and respect rather than violence and intimidation. We deserve to have both.

Reynoso, a councilmember, is incoming Brooklyn borough president. Murphy is founder of the Tayshana Chicken Murphy foundation and father to Tayshan Murphy and Taylonn Murphy Jr.

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