Alexandria, VA – The Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force (NVRGTF) announced it would stop using the GangNet database that catalogs thousands of gang members in the DC Metropolitan area after activists complained it had a disproportionate number of minorities entered into it.
It’s the first law enforcement entity in the area to stop using GangNet, which is a database that helps authorities track and investigate gang members and gang activities in the region, The Washington Post reported.
NVRGTF is made up of law enforcement officers from 15 different agencies including the Fairfax, Arlington, and Prince William Counties and the city of Alexandria, as well as the Virginia State Police.
GangNet is more widely used by more than 120 law enforcement agencies in the greater Washington, DC area that includes densely populated counties in both Maryland and Virginia.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) runs the database, according to The Washington Post.
The office said GangNet had been in use for about 10 years in the area and has about 7,800 gang members in its database.
The data gathered is only used for intelligence purposes and can’t be used for the basis of probable cause to arrest someone, The Washington Post reported.
Suspects who meet two criteria from a gang member identification list are added to the database.
That list includes admitting to being a gang member, being identified as a gang member by a reliable source, having gang tattoos, wearing gang attire, being associated with gang members, or having been arrested with gang members, according to The Washington Post.
Entries are deleted from the system if the person has no criminal activity on their record for five years.
HIDTA Executive Director Tom Carr said GangNet regularly helps investigators solve gang-related cases, The Washington Post reported.
“The whole purpose of the system is to identify all the different gangs and their members operating in the area,” Carr said. “It is merely a pointer system.”
He said that dropping GangNet could be detrimental to law enforcement, The Washington Post reported.
“It could really hamstring investigations and jeopardize officers’ safety by not being able to know you are dealing with an identified gang member,” Carr explained.
The GangNet database is also used by local jails and prisons who screen new inmates for gang affiliations to figure out where to house them safely within the inmate populate, The Washington Post reported.
Critics of the database have said that it contained a disproportionate number of minorities.
Kofi Annan, executive director of Activated People, said he was concerned that 80 percent of the alleged gang members in the database were black or Latino, The Washington Post reported.
HIDTA statistics showed that only 20 percent of the gang members logged into GangNet were white.
Annan said he thought those percentages could be a result of racial profiling by police, The Washington Post reported.
But Carr said that wasn’t what was happening to create the disparity in numbers.
He said the majority of the gangs in the Washington area draw from minority communities, The Washington Post reported.
Carr also said demographics appeared skewed because most of the entries to the database came from jails and prisons which have larger minority populations.
“We are very cautious about entering people in the gang database,” Carr said.
Critics have also complained about a lack of transparency in GangNet, The Washington Post reported.
“The use of a database where they track suspected gang members is not inherently a problem,” Annan said. “The problem is really the procedures and lack of transparency about how people get in there and the lack of an option to dispute whether or not they should be in there.”
Police don’t tell someone when they’ve been entered into GangNet and won’t answer inquiries about whether someone is in the database, The Washington Post reported.
NVRGTF Executive Director Jay Lanham admitted he made the decision to stop using GangNet after activists complained, but he said it had more to do with the utility of the database.
Lanham said detectives didn’t have time to input the data to keep it up-to-date and useful, The Washington Post reported.
“We don’t use it that much to solve crimes in the region,” he claimed. “Our guys haven’t found it helpful.”
Lanham selected a broader, custom-built database alternative called DataWalk to implement to replace GangNet, according to the Great Falls Connection.
He said the DataWalk system will manage data for all active criminal cases and will be able to be cross-referenced, but it’s nowhere near ready for use.
“We haven’t been able to get it to where we need it to be at this point because of funding,” Lanham told the Great Falls Connection. “In essence, Task Force funding went from $3 million in 2013 to $300,000 in 2020.”