“CalGang,” a California database intended to identify and track gang members, has come under scrutiny after allegations of misuse by the Los Angeles Police Department.
Critics say that the LAPD falsified records and put innocent citizens — like Larry Sanders — in the system. While the singer-songwriter is best known for singing the hook on Coolio’s hit song, “Gangsters Paradise,” Sanders works as a gang interventionist.
He described how police responded to a report of disorderly activity at a park near his South Central LA house, where he was hanging out. Sanders says police didn’t find the reported behavior, but questioned him and his friends before taking his name and leaving.
“I think maybe they got mad because I told them that I was old enough to be their father,” he says. “One thing went from, you know, from my mind to the next thing. So they started searching patterns down.”
A week later, Sanders received a letter in the mail informing him that he was now part of the CalGang database Sanders hired a lawyer and got his name taken off the list, but the experience rattled him and everyone who knew him.
“Thank God my grandkids don't look at Spectrum news or read the newspapers or stuff like that, because I'll know they be like, ‘Papa what's going on, what are you doing with this?’ Because I'm an angel in their eyes,” he says. “And my kids, they was asking me, ‘Dad what's going on?’ I said, man, this is not real, man.”
California's Assembly Bill 90 gave Attorney General Xavier Becerra the authority to oversee and review CalGang. After reports of LAPD's misuse of CalGang surfaced last month, Becerra says the state's Department of Justice is now auditing the LAPD's use of the system.
In addition to these alleged abuses, critics have long charged that the system disproportionately impacts black and brown men.
Becerra says the review is to ensure the LAPD is serving the public in “the way the law and the Constitution require.”
“This new effort on the part of the Department of Justice to scrub the system to make sure the CalGang database is providing accurate information is absolutely important,” he says.
The LAPD is the most active user of CalGang, so cleaning up the misuse within their department, he says, “will be essentially the marker of how we move forward with the CalGang system.”
Interview Highlights With Xavier Becerra
On California’s review of the CalGang database
“After the state auditor came out with a report showing that there were problems with the CalGang system in California, the legislature authorized the California Department of Justice to issue regulations so that we could have some uniform standards on how we used the CalGang system. And so we're in the process right now of issuing those rates that'll give every law enforcement agency a clear sense of how to use the system. And hopefully it will have far more integrity once it is used.”
On possible misuse of CalGang by the LAPD
“So here now you're talking about a specific case of the Los Angeles Police Department versus our statewide regulations that we're in the process officially and in this particular case there were reports that the system was not used properly by certain officers. And as I'd like to tell folks, if you have bad inputs of information in a database, you're going to produce nothing but bad outputs in that database. And so you can't rely on the information put in, then you won't be able to rely on the information you use thereafter within the database to move forward on your law enforcement activities. And so we took steps to communicate with LAPD and indicate to them that we wanted to do some of our own work to find out what happened. We are working with them to get information, but we are acting independently to come to our own conclusions about what happened in the case of the LAPD based on these reports of misuse.”
On the directive by the California legislature to review CalGang
“Once the legislature, through this new law, gave us the authority to review CalGang and to scrub it and clean it up, it also gave us some ability to look yet at the way certain agencies are using it. And obviously, the reports came out last month dealing with the LAPD. And so now we're taking on this the subject of trying to find out what the heck happened at Los Angeles.”
On what new reforms may look like
“We've gone through a pretty extensive rulemaking process to be able to issue some regulations. And what we're trying to do is ensure the integrity of the information so that when an officer plugs in certain information into the database about a particular individual who may be a suspected gang member, we're getting information that's backed up by facts. There are documented facts, it's just not an opinion by an officer about the status of this particular individual. We're also making sure that there is meaningful supervision and review of the entry of this type of information into the database and we're going to call for a frequent auditing of the information that's put into the system.”
On how the CalGang system is intended to be used between law enforcement agencies
“The database is an intelligence tool. It's an investigative tool. It's not a decision maker. It doesn't mark someone. It doesn't say you're guilty of anything. It's simply a tool that's used internally among the law enforcement community to try to help them get closer to solving crimes or preventing crimes. If the information that tool has is defective, then you could imagine that the investigative work, the intelligence work will be defective and the end result might not be what it should be.”
On possible efforts to address those harmed by being put erroneously into CalGang
“Now, that's where we're hoping that by scrubbing the system to make sure that the inputs of information to this database are solid, that we won't have those types of problems. Each agency has control over what it puts into the system. The California Department of Justice will have oversight over the database overall. We don't control what an individual officer through his or her agency is providing to the database. So we have to do everything we can as the collector of the information to make sure the information is as accurate as possible. But it's each agency's responsibility [and] each law enforcement agency on the ground's responsibility to make sure that their officers and their personnel are doing this the right way. And so that's why these regulations that we're getting ready to issue are going to be so important, because it'll tell every agency what the process is that they must follow to make sure that their inputs are accurate.”
On arguments that the system disproportionately targets black and brown people
“Obviously I'm an attorney general, but I'm also a person of color. I mentioned in my confirmation hearings back in 2017 that I, at one point, was stopped with some friends when I was a teenager for I don't believe any particular reason. Fortunately, nothing happened. It was not cited — there was no arrest. But looking back at that stop, there was no reason, no valid legal reason for me to be stopped. We know this goes on and what we want to do is make sure that we address that.
“I don't want to paint anyone with the same broad brush. There are a lot of men and women, including men and women of color, who serve in our law enforcement agencies who do this work the right way all the time. And what we want to make sure is that we're doing exactly what everyone expects us to do. We are protecting them. We're providing public safety.”
This segment aired on February 17, 2020.