Cook County Takes Steps to Erase Its Regional Gang Database

Over the years, a gang database maintained by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office grew to include more than 25,000 names, as well as countless errors.

Now it’s on the verge of being dismantled.

The sheriff’s office would be prohibited from using or sharing its Regional Gang Intelligence Database — and required to ultimately destroy it — under a new ordinance set to be enacted by the county board Thursday.

The new law will also ban the sheriff’s office from feeding information into any other gang database maintained by outside agencies. And within 90 days, county officials will be required to hold a public hearing on how the regional gang database has been used.

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Crafted during weeks of negotiations between county commissioners and the office of Sheriff Tom Dart, the ordinance passed the county board’s Criminal Justice Committee unanimously Wednesday afternoon. Since the committee is made up of all 17 members of the county board, the measure is almost certain to be approved at the full board meeting Thursday.

“The terms ‘gang association’ or ‘gang membership’ have become a form of criminalizing mostly young people of color,” county Commissioner Alma Anaya, the measure’s chief sponsor, said during Wednesday’s committee meeting. “The passage of the ordinance will be a major step forward for Cook County. We will serve as a national model.”

One commissioner after another echoed those sentiments. But several also noted that questions remain, even at the county level. Among them: how the database was built and used, and whether to inform people who were included in it.

An earlier draft of the ordinance would have required the sheriff’s office to send written notifications to those individuals. But that language was removed amid concerns from the sheriff and some commissioners that it could expose the county to lawsuits.

The earlier draft also would have placed restrictions on gang affiliation data compiled by officials at the county jail. The sheriff’s office would have been responsible for an annual report detailing the race, age and gender of everyone it records as a gang member as well as the reasons why.

The new ordinance does not apply to the gang data from the jail.

Still, on Wednesday community and legal groups welcomed the county’s proposed reforms.

Erasing gang databases altogether remains their goal, said Reyna Wences, an organizer with Chicago-based Organized Communities Against Deportations. “But definitely, looking for ways to change the way they’re operated right now is a good first step.”

Under the county law, the sheriff’s office would “enact the final destruction” of the regional gang database once it gets permission from a commission that oversees state public records laws. The ordinance doesn’t provide a timetable.

The sheriff’s office is just one of several area law enforcement agencies to maintain databases tracking the alleged gang affiliations of thousands of people who have been arrested or stopped. The Chicago Police Department’s database had more than 128,000 people on it as of last year, while the state police maintain one with about 90,000 names.

Last July, the sheriff’s office released a partial copy of its regional gang database after I submitted an open-records request. As I reported, the data included about 25,000 entries, including hundreds of people listed as dead and others with no gang affiliation, though that was supposedly why they were in the system. More than 350 police departments and other outside agencies had access to the information, yet people in the database were not offered an opportunity to address or correct it.

Soon after, Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia approached the sheriff’s office for more information. When he left the board for a seat in Congress, Anaya, his successor, continued the discussions. Aides to Dart announced last month that they had disabled the database and locked hard drives with the information in a safe.

But Anaya pushed for permanent regulations, and negotiations went on for weeks. Commissioner Stanley Moore, chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, said dozens of drafts of the ordinance were passed back and forth before everyone reached an agreement.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who helped lead the negotiations, said Wednesday that the ordinance is “phenomenal” for the county but not the final word: “Hopefully we will learn at the public hearing if we need to modify this in some way to protect people’s rights.”

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