Little Black Book

EVERY SPRING, WHILE the Legislature is in session, police and prosecutors can be heard to moan of their woefully inadequate tools for fighting gang crime. This session, a bill authored by Sen. Randy Kelly (DFL-St. Paul) may go a long way toward giving them what they want--and undermining the civil liberties and privacy rights of countless thousands of juveniles, particularly those of color.

The bill--a $7 million statewide "strike force" initiative against gangs--contains provisions allowing for the creation of a statewide database consisting of names, addresses, photographs, and other identifying characteristics of alleged gangbangers as young as 14. Although the information is defined as confidential, it would be available to criminal-justice entities around the state, including prosecutors, probation and parole officers, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and the attorney general's office. Kelly says the criteria for inclusion in the database have yet to be worked out, but he expects they will be similar to--but more restrictive than--those currently used by gang units in the metro area.

Police in Minneapolis and St. Paul use a 10-point set of criteria to finger youths as gang members. The criteria range from admitted gang membership to tattoos, the use of gang symbols, the wearing of "colors," and the identities of one's friends. According to Lt. Randall Johnson, who heads the MPD gang unit, meeting any three of the criteria is enough to hang someone with a gang affiliation. The MPD currently has a list of about 4,300 names in its files, he adds.

Kelly recently agreed to tighten certain of the criteria in response to criticism during a meeting of the state's Data Privacy Committee, in which they were deemed too broad in scope. According to the current version of Kelly's bill, a person must have an arrest record to qualify for the list--although the arrest can be for a misdemeanor offense, and does not have to be the result of a "gang-related" crime.

Opponents remain unconvinced. Mark Silverstein of the Colorado ACLU, who has defended people falsely entered onto gang rolls in other states, says, "The criteria that are used are over-broad, subjective, and pose a great risk of falsely labeling kids as gang members and stigmatizing an entire generation of young people of color."

California was one of the first states to develop a gang database, and other states soon followed suit. In 1993 a police gang list in Denver drew national attention when it was revealed that two-thirds of all black males in the city between the ages of 12 and 24 were listed in police files. And 93 percent of those profiled in the database were either black or Hispanic. One critic accused the police of having an "official policy of harassment" toward the city's minority groups.

"I don't want to be associated with any effort that is going to go out and be rousting people arbitrarily simply because they are young, or because of the color of their skin," Kelly insists. He says the BCA will perform periodic audits to ensure that any data collected is being properly used.

Still, the bill remains unacceptable to some who feel that the state's fixation on gangs is misplaced. "I think it addresses white hysteria about crime," says Keith Ellison, executive director at the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis. "It's not rationally designed to be effective, because not all gang members commit crimes, and not all criminals are in gangs. You can't tell me that some 15-year-old guy with a blue rag out of his pocket is [the heart of] Minnesota's problem. That's not true."

Others fear that cops could use the list to justify dubious searches of individuals or their cars and homes, and that the confidentiality of the list could be breached pretty easily. Moreover, "There's a lot of discretion in the criminal justice system," says Silverstein, "and I suspect that being on a list may be a factor in discretionary judgments that are exercised by officers, by prosecutors, by probation officers, maybe even judges."

Ellison agrees. He would like to see more money spent on programs to help troubled youths rather than convict them. "Why don't we have a statewide prevention strike force?" Ellison suggests. "We're going to prevent young people from getting into desperate circumstances by combining recreational resources, employment resources, and chemical-dependency resources. That's what we need. We don't need this. This is useless."

 
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