The Problem

American gang policing has its roots, at least as far back as the opposition towards the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Young Black and Latinx people formed street organizations to build up their community while protecting themselves against police violence. Over the years, thanks in part to suppression tactics both by local police departments and the federal government, some groups engaged in destructive behaviors. 

Police and media seized upon those examples to demonize associations among Black and Latinx people and create a moral panic amongst the public that claimed these groups were dangerous organized crime syndicates. Eventually, law enforcement began to utilize conspiracy laws, most famously the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, to prosecute them the same ways they had once done with the Italian mafia.

Political leaders claim that surveillance and policing of alleged gang members is needed because gangs make communities unsafe and that the public demands police intervention. But this claim erases the role of these same leaders in the systematic defunding of these communities and the long legacies of racialized discrimination and exploitation that have created concentrated poverty that contributes to violence. Instead of addressing these root causes, political leaders empower law enforcement and prosecutors to criminalize relationships – and entire neighborhoods – through the logic of guilt by association. 

The resulting gang suppression tactics present numerous problems for the people and neighborhoods targeted by them.

Legal issues

Gang policing is racially discriminatory
Gang policing is racially discriminatory. Gang policing policies in New York City today almost exclusively focus on Black and Latinx communities while violent white supremacist groups and traditional mafia organizations are mostly, if not completely, excluded from gang policing tactics.
Gang policing policies criminalizes
Gang policing policies criminalize people who are not gang members. The labeling of people as gang members for wearing a particular color, or associating with others in the community (such as family members, friends or neighbors) has resulted in demonstrably false labeling in gang databases across the country, some of which have documented toddlers as gang members.
Gang policing increases police harassment
Gang policing increases the likelihood of harassment by police. Gang-accused people have been stopped by minor infractions, like jaywalking, by police in order to pressure them for intelligence gathering. Some targets of gang policing report numerous arrests, most of which are dismissed, because police believe they are gang members.
Gang prosecutors pressure people into plea deals
Gang prosecutions pressure people into plea deals, oftentimes with cooperating agreements that pit one person's freedom against others. At the federal level, where bail can be routinely denied, the conviction rates are higher than 90% thanks in large part to plea deals – not trials.
Encourages use of RICO laws
The use of conspiracy and RICO laws, which lower the burden of proof for prosecutors and spread a net of culpability, can contribute to cases of overcharging and wrongful convictions.
Being a gang member is not a crime
Being a gang member is not a crime. Police who aggressively pursue and profile people of color as alleged gang members based on who they talk to, who they hang out, and where they live violate their 1st amendment rights to freedom of association.

Gang Database

The NYPD maintains a secretive, arbitrary list of people it deems gang members called the Criminal Group Database, or Gang Database. This database is racially discriminatory, with over 99% of people listed in the database being non-white, and the overwhelming majority of people listed being Black or Hispanic people. A person does not need to have committed a crime to be included in the database. The database is controlled solely by the NYPD and information, we believe, is shared with other agencies.

Gang databases, however, do not make communities safer, they merely expand punishment by cataloguing and profiling people for complex and unfair prosecutions.

According to the NYPD, some of its criteria for database inclusion includes:

  • Self-admission – An individual will be entered if he/she admits to membership during debriefing and social media, which includes posts “indicating membership such as photographs, colors or language and symbols frequently used by a criminal group”
  • Identification by other agencies – School Safety, DOC, “outside agency”
  • Meets any two (2) other criteria:
    • Living in known gang location
    • Wearing colors associated with gangs (red, blue, green, black, purple, etc)
    • Social media posts
    • Associating with alleged gang members
    • Scars/tattoos

There are also hundreds of minors included in the database; some were as young as 12 years old when they were added. Between 2003-2013, about 30% of people added were children. Since 2014, the NYPD has expanded the rate at which people were added to the database. Inclusion in the NYPD’s Gang Database can have devastating consequences. 

targeted persons are harassed more often, and more aggressively, by the police. They are also more likely to be falsely arrested and charged with a range of serious crimes, often where the proof of guilt is tenuous at best.
Bail Enhancements
at arraignments, prosecutors routinely claim that individuals are gang members in order to seek excessive bail.
Plea Deals
prosecutors rely on gang allegations to make worse plea offers, to “prove” charges at trial, and to seek higher sentences for people who are gang-accused.
people included in the database can have their “gang status” used to place them on public housing (NYCHA) "banned" lists that restrict them from being on public housing property. Those who are prosecuted in gang cases are also often targets of "permanent exclusions," which are proceedings enacted by housing officials to permanently exclude them – and in some cases, their family members – from being residents of public housing.


The gang database doesn't stop violence, it just enhances punishment
Gang Prosecutions

Through the use of federal laws designed to take down organized crime in the form of traditional Mafia organizations, namely the RICO Act of 1970, federal prosecutors have for years thrown some of the harshest and most complex criminal charges at alleged members of street gangs. At the state level, local conspiracy laws do not require that an individual defendant take any role in target crimes, or even be present during or aware of commission of a crime that is the target of a conspiracy.  Instead, in conspiracy convictions the prosecution need prove nothing more than “agreement between 2 or more people to commit a target offense” and this agreement can be inferred from conduct. Thus if a person is associated with a gang or crew that has a rivalry with another group they can be convicted of conspiracy even without taking any active role in crimes.  

Impacts on Immigrants

Immigrant communities, undocumented people and migrants have added concerns in regards to gang allegations. There are many ways the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can weaponize gang allegations in immigration proceedings. Gang allegations can be used to deny release from immigration detention or legal immigration status, such as DACA status, a green card, or visa. In fact, as the political rhetoric has increasingly villainized immigrant and migrant people, “gangs” are often used as a rationale to justify heavy immigration policing and deportation efforts, as well as increased collaboration between local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Gang Policing Units

Police officers engaging in gang policing often violate the 4th Amendment rights of their targets; are likely to physically assault them; and often engage in false arrests. Officers who belong to units designated with gang policing (i.e. gang units) are more cavalier and less accountable than most cops. In data we received from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a police oversight agency that receives complaints from the public, officers in gang policing units had more complaints filed against them than the average police officer. In short, gang policing invites violations of the federal constitution, state constitutions, and other laws.