Legal and social activists require anyone who thinks they’re in a gang database to ask the NYPD to hand over the files on them.
The goal is to shed light on what police critics say is a practice of labeling too many minorities as gang members — sometimes for reasons that aren’t clear, and at other times because they have tattoos or know someone with a criminal record.
“This is what’s really confronting for us,” said Anthony Posada of the Legal Aid Society. “We often don’t know how they are entering people into the database, or why.”
Legal Aid filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the NYPD in October, asking for a full explanation of how police describe someone is a gang member and how, if at all, someone warrants removal from the database.
The NYPD said it would respond within 90 days, according to the group. It never did.
On Wednesday, Legal Aid and a host of activist organizations will announce a “Do It Yourself FOIL Campaign” to encourage anyone who thinks they may be in the database — even if they haven’t been arrested — to file a FOIL request.
“Gang databases are over-inclusive, inaccurate and they have a disparate impact,” reads a flyer Legal Aid produced, along with a FOIL form letter, for the initiative. “Indeed, the vast majority of those entered into the NYPD gang database are black and brown New Yorkers.
“More importantly, entry into the gang database does not need any evidence of criminality or suspicion of wrongdoing.”
Posada, supervising lawyer for Legal Aid’s Community Justice Unit, said he expects the response to anyone asking about the database will be a form letter that doesn’t address the question.
“Our goal is to get as many people as probable to file a request,” he said. “We expect a boilerplate response, and if that happens we intend to file a class action suit.”
The NYPD didn’t respond to questions about its database, including how many names are in it.
A City University of New York law professor, Babe Howell, said based on a FOIL request she filed a few years ago, there were 5,951 names in the database prior to 2001 — with 21,537 added to it by 2009.
This appears amid a push for criminal justice reform on numerous fronts.
In California, a law passed in 2013 requires police departments to notify the parents of minors whose names are in a database — and to permit them to contest the inclusion.
And in Oregon last year, the Portland Police declared it was ending its practice of designating gang members because of what it called “unintended consequences” — with too many unable to get jobs long after they cleaned up their act.
Such consequences are a by-product of the NYPD’s practices, police critics here have charged.
Posada said he’s heard stories from a number of teens about police pressuring them for information about themselves and their friends — even about their Facebook names and passwords.
“Then they wind up in a database and don’t even know it,” he said.