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During Investigation, ProPublica Finds Issues With Chicago Gang Database


Chicago Police are under pressure to explain a so-called gang database with nearly 130,000 names. Critics say the list is not transparent and could enable racial profiling. Here's Illinois state Senator Patricia Van Pelt talking to Chicago TV station WGN.


PATRICIA VAN PELT: Eighty-nine percent of African-American men in Chicago 20 to 29 are on that list. That is outrageous.

CHANG: ProPublica reporter Mick Dumke has studied the list. He's found some surprises. For one thing...

MICK DUMKE: I found more than 160 people who are supposedly in their 70s or 80s or even older in this database.

CHANG: I asked Dumke how police officers use the gang database.

DUMKE: They use it to basically keep track of people they meet on the street, people they're investigating. They want to know, essentially, where they've been and who they've associated with. So they find the database to be a helpful tool pretty much in getting a history of a person they might encounter in their work, even when they acknowledge that not all the information in it might be accurate.

CHANG: And what's the criteria for being affiliated with gang members?

DUMKE: They have to self-admit to being a member of a gang, they may have tattoos or some other kind of external markings that are associated with gangs. Or they could be identified as a gang member by somebody else the police determine is reliable. So it's a little bit fuzzy.

CHANG: What about this list first grabbed your attention?

DUMKE: Well, it's been out in the news here. A couple of individuals in Chicago sued the police department saying they were mistakenly identified as gang members and recorded in this database. And then that information was accessed by federal immigration authorities who moved to deport them as a result. I've also heard some suspicion that the database could pop up in various job or background checks.

CHANG: Background checks for, like, jobs?

DUMKE: Jobs, potentially for housing. So we don't know exactly how it's used and who all has access to it. I think that's one of the major concerns about it.

CHANG: So all these ways it can impact people's lives and yet we don't know how much evidence was even present in the first place for adding that particular name to the list.

DUMKE: That's right. And when I talked to police officers, I heard different views about the quality of the information in this database. A lot of officers said, look, it's really useful, but I have some issues with it. One officer, who's a fairly high-ranking figure in the Chicago Police Department, said that he uses it to determine deployment, where it makes sense to send more police officers to put them on patrol because the information could be helpful in determining who's involved in a street conflict and why it's going on.

But he said, I have some questions about whether it's constitutional.

CHANG: Did any of the officers you talked to say that the list gave them opportunities to racially profile, encouraged racial profiling?

DUMKE: They didn't talk about racial profiling. In fact, one officer I spoke with said, the truth of the matter is that most of the street gangs in Chicago are led by Hispanic or black men. One thing that occurred to me is that the database is kind of self-fulfilling. If there's a lot more police activity in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, of course most of the people in the database are going to end up being black and Hispanic.

CHANG: Right.

DUMKE: And so when you turn that record into what amounts to an enforcement mechanism or what amounts to a sentencing tool, then that's really problematic because it really says at least as much if not more so about what the police department is doing than it does about the people who are on the list.

CHANG: Mick Dumke is a reporter at ProPublica Illinois. Thank you very much.

DUMKE: Thank you. I appreciate you having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 12, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
A prevous Web introduction to this story incorrectly gave Mick Dumke's first name as Mike.
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