The New York City Council’s Committee on Public Safety last week held hearings on the New York Police Department’s ongoing anti-gang crackdown, known as “Operation Crew Cut” —named for the local slang word “crew” used to refer to the city’s street gangs. Things got emotional when the discussion turned to the NYPD’s “gang database” that tracks hundreds of city residents.
Council member Laurie Cumbo choked back tears at the idea of a database almost exclusively targeting black and Latino people. “To hear about the fact this database exists, on first sight, on first hearing — it seems very problematic,” she said. “They are people. They are our community. They’re valuable. We can’t continue to look at people as casualties.”
NYPD Chief of Detectives tried to reassure her. “We work diligently to ensure that we do not accidentally ensnare innocent people into the database,” he said. “The numbers back that up… In fact, the average person in the database has been arrested 11 times, five of which are for felonies.”
Protesters outside City Hall complained that being listed in the database could follow you around for the rest of your life. Karess Taylor-Hughes of the Black Youth Project 100 told the New York Daily News: “Just because someone is falsely accused of gang allegations they can lose their housing. Their families can lose their housing. These are permanent impacts on young black lives.”
And despite Shea’s assurances, it turns out that the supposedly progressive administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s NYPD has added names to the database at nearly three times the rate of the previous 10 years — now about 342 people per month. As of February 2018, there were 42,334 names in the database, a 70 percent jump since de Blasio took office in January 2014, according to data-crunching by the Intercept. Kids as young as 13 have been added to the database.
And much of the focus on “crew” activity seems to come back to cannabis.
A commentary in the Daily News noted one of the high-profile prosecutions to emerge from the federally assisted 2016 raids on the Eastchester Gardens housing complex in the Bronx—the biggest in the city’s history. The defendant “spent nearly two years in solitary confinement as he was moved to several federal facilities waiting for his day in court, according to his mother. With none of the media hoopla that accompanied the raid and indictments in 2016, his charges, which included offenses originally dismissed by local prosecutors, were quietly dropped to marijuana-related charges months ago. Weed.”
The Daily News itself at the time of the Eastchester Garden raids said that police “nabbed 87 suspects… in a lethal nine-year reign of violence and drug-dealing in Bronx housing projects.” There was initially some outrage over the heavy-handed tactics used in the raids. Numerous families had their doors broken down in the middle of the night by armored, heavily armed cops and federal agents — later resulting in protest demonstrations under the banner “Hands of Our Youth.” But there was little media follow-up as the cases wound their way through the court system.
An investigation by City Limits noted that many of those busted in the raids faced “conspiracy” charges under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Evidence submitted in support of these RICO charges included engaging in “specialized greetings” — and selling marijuana.
The database controversy follows similarly heated City Council hearings earlier this year on the continuing racial disparities in cannabis arrests in the New York City. The new controversy indicates that actual marijuana busts may be only one aspect of the problem. The “average” number of convictions cited by Shea aside, no conviction is actually required to get on the gang database. Placement on the list can seemingly arise merely from allegations of dealing cannabis, and could lead to youths facing a lifetime of stigma and discrimination.
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