LOS ANGELES (CN) — Officers with the Los Angeles Police Department have a history of falsely labeling residents as gang members, decaying community trust in law enforcement and wrecking job prospects for Black and Latino residents fraudulently entered into a state gang database, five residents said in a federal class action lawsuit Monday.
The database, called CalGang, is estimated to contain profiles of at least 80,000 California residents — the majority people of color — suspected of having gang affiliations.
But LAPD officers violated public trust in the criminal legal system by routinely filing false “field interview cards” classifying people as gang members when they had no such affiliation and then entering the descriptions in CalGang, the plaintiffs say.
One such case involves Sara Ochoa, a correctional officer raised in East LA who was classified as a “gang associate” by police after visiting her old neighborhood.
Jajuan Johnson, a recent high school graduate from South LA and aspiring writer, was falsely labeled as part of the Bloods street gang after LAPD stopped a car he was in and speculated he was a gang member because his cousin was, the lawsuit says.
The policing practice amounts to “racial profiling,” attorneys for Ochoa, Johnson and fellow class members Branden Costa, Antonio May and Michael Perr say in the 19-page complaint.
“This resulted in devastating consequences to putative class members, almost all of whom were Black and Latino, including imprisonment, deprivation of civil rights, and practical consequences such as not being able to obtain a job, rent an apartment, or receive financial aid for college,” the complaint says.
The LAPD criminalizes innocent LA residents by booking them under the auspices of a state law allowing officers to arrest individuals suspected of committing a crime at the direction of a gang organization, according to the lawsuit filed in the Central District of California.
Last month, LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey took aim at the pattern of false entries into CalGang and charged three LAPD officers with filing false police reports and fabricating documents for court.
In some encounters, the officers — Braxton Shaw, Michael Coblentz and Nicholas Martinez — reported that someone admitted to being a gang member when officers’ body-worn camera video showed residents were never asked about gang affiliation, prosecutors said in a July 10 statement.
Coblentz, Martinez and Shaw — who is accused of falsifying at least 43 interview cards — are among 27 officers under investigation by Lacey’s office.
An LAPD spokesperson said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
Police accountability activists and advocates for youth of color have urged lawmakers for years to reform CalGang, saying the program increases the likelihood of residents wrongfully criminalized.
Last month, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra revoked police agencies’ access to records generated by the LAPD and asked state lawmakers to reform the program.
With the new policy, the California Department of Justice also urged police agencies to internally audit the accuracy of their inputs into CalGang, 25% of which is composed of records produced by LAPD officers.
Becerra’s move came after LAPD Chief Michel Moore permanently withdrew from the database following an internal audit that confirmed a Los Angeles Times report that officers had wrongfully classified residents as suspected gang members without reasonable suspicion.
Humberto M. Guizar, an attorney for the proposed class, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on the lawsuit.