Does NYPD Gang Database Fuel Mass Incarceration?

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Photo by Chris Yarzab via Flickr

So-called “precision policing” aimed at cracking down on gang violence has subjected thousands of youths to “harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and threats,” according to a recent report.

The New York Police Department’s (NYPD) “Operation Crew Cut,” starting in 2012, doubled the number of officers in the police gang unit, and recreated a “Criminal Group Database” to track alleged gang members, that led to thousands of youths and adults arrested accused of gang affiliation.

According to the report entitled “Gang Takedowns in the de Blasio Era: The Dangers of ‘Precision Policing,” released last week by the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, between August 2003 and August 2013, “over 20,000 people were added into the NYPD’s gang database,” of whom 99 percent were non-White, reports City Limits.

Some 30 percent of them were children, said the report, adding that thousands of juveniles and adults were arrested in conspiracy cases, tens of thousands were “placed into a secretive gang database,” and many more were “subjected to harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and threats.”

Most of the increase in gang tracking has been recent. From December 2013 to February 2018, over 17,000 people have been added to this database, and 98 percent of them are black or Hispanic. This figure reflects that the de Blasio Administration has put people on this list at a rate 70 percent higher than the previous leadership.

De Blasio has openly criticized the last mayor for his “stop and frisk” record. But the report suggests anti-gang policing might be just as problematic as stop and frisk.

“It appears that the NYPD is merely substituting one set of techniques to tightly manage the lives of young people of color for another and uses the ‘‘gang’ label to mute public opposition.”

Alex Vitale, one of the authors, told City Limits that “the decision to characterize delinquency in some communities as a ‘gang problem’ is political.”

If determining what a gang is is difficult, figuring out how the police establish a person’s connection to one is also rather vague. According to the report, these are some of the criteria the police say they use:

The report concludes by stressing that “gang policing replicates the harms of mass incarceration,” and that this form of police control is “simply put, […] racist policing at its worst.”

If poverty is recognized as the root of most serious crimes, then “New York City needs to invest in its residents, gang-affiliated or otherwise, instead of criminalizing them.”

John Jay College of Criminal Justice sociology professor David Brotherton stated at the report’s launching that another way to erase the stigma carried by gangs is to legalize them, citing the case of Ecuador.

“They legalized their gangs, and murder rates plummeted,” he said.

The full report is available here.