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Challenging a gang database

A proposed change to protect innocent juveniles from mistakenly being added to the statewide list is only fair.

June 25, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • A bill moving through the Legislature would require law enforcement officials to notify minors and their parents or guardians before adding them to any gang databases. The bill's intent is to protect the integrity of state databases and make it less likely that children are falsely identified as gang members. Above: A documented gang member is put into a patrol car by a police officer in one of Santa Ana's worst neighborhoods.
A bill moving through the Legislature would require law enforcement officials… (Los Angeles Times )

In the 15 years since California launched Cal Gangs, a statewide database that allows police to track and share information about alleged gang members, few changes have been made to the rules that law enforcement must follow to place someone in it.

Now, a proposal is moving through the Legislature that would help ensure that innocent juveniles aren't mistakenly added to the database. If passed, SB 458 would require local law enforcement to notify minors and their parents or guardians before adding them to any database, including Cal Gangs. The measure also would allow families to challenge that designation in writing.

The bill provides a modest but much-needed change. Gang databases are useful tools that have helped police and prosecutors combat gang violence throughout the state by helping them track gang members as they move across city and state lines. But these vast repositories of names, photos and alleged gang affiliations are also imperfect tools. Police can add an individual's name based on little more than a tattoo, style of dress, identification by an informant or simply frequenting a gang area.

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Most often, the data are collected through routine police stops. Those whose information is included in the database are not notified, nor are they afforded an opportunity to appeal their designation. And though there is no penalty for being included in the database, it can result in unwanted police scrutiny.

Some critics argue that any modification to the existing system will undercut law enforcement's ability to pursue violent gang members. Such arguments are specious. In fact, some law enforcement agencies have voluntarily implemented similar changes without any notable difficulties. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, adopted a protocol in 2009 involving parental notification and gang injunctions. And in Florida, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department has called for adopting parental notification rules.

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SB 458, by Sen. Roderick D. Wright (D-Inglewood), wouldn't hinder police from going after gangs. Rather, it would help protect the integrity of the state database and make it less likely that children would be falsely identified as gang members. That's good for public safety and communities.

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