During a fall 2014 stop in Carson, Calif., deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s gang unit searched a car, finding a gun safe with a .22-caliber pistol, several grams of marijuana, prescription drugs, a digital scale and two driver’s licenses that had been reported stolen. Credit: Ali Winston/Reveal

In a report released this morning, the California State Auditor harshly criticized management, oversight and use of the CalGang database, which tracks people with alleged gang ties across the state.

The 115-page report found inaccuracy rates of over 20 percent for individual gang criteria, a total lack of oversight and transparency, hundreds of people whose entries had not been purged from the system in the mandated five-year timeframe, and a failure to follow a 2013 law requiring that juveniles – and their guardians – be notified when they are included in CalGang.

The state auditor reviewed administration of the database by the CalGang Executive Board and its day-to-day use by law enforcement in the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Ana and in Santa Clara and Sonoma counties. The review confirms and expands on the findings of a joint investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Investigative Fund earlier this year, which revealed improper entry of individuals’ records into CalGang, inadequate oversight and potential violations of privacy.

Some highlights:

  • Thirteen of 100 people whose CalGang entries the auditor reviewed were improperly included in the database by law enforcement agencies. One person entered by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office had been detained for resisting arrest. No gang ties were alleged in the initial report, and he denied gang membership in a booking interview.
  • More than 600 people included in CalGang had “purge dates” far beyond the five-year mandatory limit for removing people from the database if they have not reoffended or had their file updated by law enforcement. More than 250 of those people had official purge dates 100 years or more in the future.
  • Despite an official policy that CalGang not be referenced in court as supporting evidence for an individual’s gang ties, the auditor found at least four unpublished appellate decisions in California courts that used CalGang inclusion to support expert opinions about gang involvement.
  • Three of the law enforcement agencies admitted to using CalGang for employment screenings.
  • None of the four law enforcement agencies targeted by the review conducted required supervisory or annual reviews of CalGang entries made by their officers, increasing the likelihood of improper or inaccurate inclusion of individuals in the  database.
  • Both Los Angeles and Santa Ana police continued to add juveniles to the database after January 2014 without notifying them or their guardians, as required by a law passed by the Legislature. Of the 129 juvenile records reviewed in those two agencies, more than 70 percent of the juveniles and their guardians had not been properly notified by law enforcement.

California’s gang database was the first of its kind when it went online in the late 1990s. Currently, 13 other states and three federal law enforcement agencies maintain gang databases built off the CalGang system’s design.

One aspect of CalGang that the state auditor did not review was its use by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport undocumented immigrants with alleged gang ties, as documented in an article for The Intercept. CalGang has been connected to a similar database maintained by the federal agency since 2006. Like California’s database, the ICEGangs system has significant problems with accuracy and transparency, which are exacerbated by the particularities of immigration law.

To resolve CalGang’s rampant problems, the state auditor recommended that the Legislature require the state Department of Justice to oversee the database, create defined standards for individual inclusion in and use of the database, and strengthen independent oversight of CalGang.

A bill that would give adults the right to be notified when they are included in CalGang, and to challenge that entry, is on the suspense file in the Senate Appropriations Committee after clearing the Assembly earlier this year. A vote is expected on the proposed legislation this afternoon.

Ali Winston can be reached at ali.winston@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @awinston.

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Ali Winston is a freelance reporter, covering surveillance, privacy and criminal justice. His writing has won awards from the National Association of Black Journalists, the New York City Community Media Alliance, the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Originally from New York, he is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley.