The Computer Wore Colors

Recent headlines in both local dailies screamed that while gang crime in Orange County is falling, gang membership is swelling. On July 3, the Times Orange County ran a story headlined “Gang Membership Up, Crime Down.” The Orange County Register led its new Local News section with the story “OC Gang Membership on Rise”; in diminutive type, the Reg acknowledged that “gang felonies, including homicides, declined.”

The basis for those articles was the district attorney's annual gang-unit report. According to the 28-page document, gangs recruited more than 1,200 new members in 1998.

In fact, gang membership probably fell. Buried deep in the DA's report is a fact overlooked by the Times and Register: because of a software glitch, county computers failed to catch and purge the names of non-gangsters throughout 1998 in the CalGang database.

The number of entries in the county's official gang database has been declining since 1997, following complaints from civil-rights advocates and criminologists that innocents were being counted as gangsters. The district attorney's office responded by purging from its database the names of people with no recorded gang activity for at least five years. By the end of 1997, a DA spokesperson could announce proudly that his office had deleted some 6,657 entries, bringing total gang membership in the county from 24,000 to “almost 19,000.”

According to the new report, “programming” problems prevented further purging in 1998. But the same bug didn't stop county officials from adding the names of 1,296 new suspected gang members to CalGang. That snafu became a criminological nightmare in the pages of the Times and Register.

Not to worry, DA Tony Rackauckas says in the report. “This flaw has been corrected, and, as of this writing, purging is about to resume,” he said.

The truth is no one really knows how many gang members there are, since the criteria for eligibility in CalGang, a gee-whiz computer system with 150 fields, is fuzzy at best. Gang “affiliates,” wannabes and taggers are routinely lumped together with actual gang members, according to civil-rights watchdogs.

Critics of the database also point out that since gang membership isn't a crime (although it could lead to enhanced penalties if you are convicted of one), the database is full of individuals who have never committed a crime.

The latest report repeats previous claims that the county enters only the names of people who identify themselves as gang members, with “approximately 90 percent of the current listings [including] persons who had admitted membership in a gang or tagger crew.” But critics of gang databases—like the ACLU's John Crew, who heads the northern California ACLU's Police Practices Project—argue that youths stopped in so-called field detentions by police are more likely than not to claim gang ties, especially when failing to do so could lead to retribution from their peers. Some Asian youths I've interviewed tell me they get so tired of being constantly harassed by police that they will claim gang affiliations even if they don't have any.

In a landmark out-of-court settlement with the ACLU that illustrates the implications of such a tactic, the Garden Grove police in 1996 agreed that its gang-unit officers would stop asking field detainees about their gang ties if they say they are not gang members.

Some two years ago, the California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission devoted its entire daylong session in Costa Mesa to the issue of mislabeling county youths as gang members. It heard from a host of community activists as well as law-enforcement officials. The committee has yet to issue its report, but Phil Montez, who heads the commission's Los Angeles regional office, hinted to the Weekly that the report, which he is still writing, will trounce local law-enforcement authorities for unfairly targeting ethnic minorities as gang members.

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