CHICAGO (CN) - A coalition of community groups and individuals sued the city of Chicago on Tuesday over claims that the police department targets blacks and Hispanics for a database that permanently identifies them as gang members.
In the lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Illinois federal court, the groups say that inclusion in the database can mark an individual for life, preventing them from securing employment and educational opportunities and leaving them vulnerable to police harassment, unreasonable searches, and even deportation.
Represented by attorney Vanessa del Valle, the groups, including Black Youth Project 100 Chicago, Blocks Together and Latino Union, seek class-action certification and an order that creates safeguards – such as sworn declarations from two detectives, a written notice of inclusion in the database, the right to appeal, and a bar on the info falling into the hands of third parties – to protect people from being falsely included in the database.
Del Valle said in a phone interview Tuesday that the groups are part of a coalition that has been fighting to end the database for more than a year, spurred by federal immigration agents targeting Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez for deportation after the database falsely tagged him as a gang member. The city settled with Catalan-Ramirez at the end of 2017 and agreed to remove his name from the database, according to the Chicago Tribune.
"The city and the Chicago Police Department have ignored the coalition's demands and that's why we filed the lawsuit today," del Valle said, adding that the groups would enter into talks and negotiations with the city and police to reform the database.
Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said that in the last six months the department has taken a close look at policies for including people on the gang database and is planning on releasing a revised version for public comment in the coming days.
"Criminal justice information like the gang database and data are vital to police departments to be able to safeguard neighborhoods,” Guglielmi said in a phone interview. “With that being said, it is also just as important that that information is accurate and reliable. We value that information but we also acknowledge that there is a need to ensure its validity to the community as well."
The groups say the database encompasses due process, equal protection, and unlawful search and seizure violations.
The lawsuit accuses the Chicago police of overwhelmingly targeting blacks and Hispanics in the database that includes 128,000 adult entries. The groups did not have official numbers on how many juveniles were in the database, but they estimate as many as 68,0000, bringing the total number of labeled gang members to between 155,000 and 195,000.
According to the lawsuit, 95 percent of the people in the database are black or Hispanic. Thousands of those listed have never been in a gang or have left the gangs they once belonged to, the groups say. More than 14,800 people on the database are more than 50 years old, more than 2,800 people are more than 60, and 163 people are in their 70s or 80s, according to the lawsuit.
Chicago Police Department “officers are afforded unlimited discretion to include someone in the gang database. They wield this discretion in a discriminatory manner, often falsely labeling people gang members based solely on their race and neighborhood,” the 59-page lawsuit states.
Officers are supposed to identify gang members though gang attire, tattoos, and other distinguishing characteristics. But the lawsuit says the Chicago Police Department has a practice of entering people into the gang database, even when they cannot establish membership.
A name in the database becomes permanent after eight hours, the groups claim. Furthermore, individuals included are not given an opportunity to appeal the designation, and the city does nothing to update or audit the accuracy of its information, according to the lawsuit.
City spokesman Bill McCaffrey declined to comment, saying the city had not yet received the lawsuit.
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