Larry Sanders has lived his entire life within a three-block radius of the park in South Los Angeles where he works as a gang interventionist.
Green Meadows Park is where his kids grew up, and now it is where he takes his four grandchildren play. It’s also where he was stopped by police in April and added to the city’s gang database ― accused of the same activity he works hard to prevent in his neighborhood.
Across the country, gang databases are coming under scrutiny by justice reform advocates who say the lists exemplify police overreach that can lead to civil rights violations.
California, the first state to create a computerized gang database, is reviewing its regulations, grappling with a system prone to discretionary practices that remains largely unregulated outside of law enforcement.
Despite previous reforms, it still disproportionately affects underprivileged communities of color.
Sanders was not on the clock but socializing with friends the afternoon of April 29, when police from the city’s gang task force pulled up. The officers asked the men if they were on parole or probation. None of them were. Then without explanation the officers told them to lift their shirts and show their tattoos.
Larry Sanders displays a tattoo that police officers asked him to show when they stopped him on suspicions that he was a gang member.Jim Seida
The police department had received a call about people drinking in public, Sanders recalled the officers telling them. There was no alcohol present, but groups nearby were drinking and were never questioned, Sanders said. The officers ran IDs and then left without further explanation. It was “the regular get down,” said Sanders, 58, who dismissed the interaction as one of many humiliations he has experienced as a black man.
Weeks later, he received a letter saying he had “met the minimum criteria” to be designated a gang member or associate. The notice had a checklist justifying Sanders’ inclusion with three neatly placed ‘x’s claiming he was ‘associating with documented gang members,’ ‘frequenting gang areas’ and had been ‘arrested for offenses consistent with gang activity.’
Shocked and confused, Sanders said he had not been arrested that day, but had been stopped and released more than 20 years ago for something unrelated. He has never been part of a gang.
“I’m like, man, how the hell did they figure that just by looking at me,” he said. He applied in June to be removed from the database, but is still waiting to hear about his case.
Sanders, who also goes by the name L.V., short for Large Variety, gained notoriety in 1995 for his vocals in Coolio’s Grammy-winning hit “Gangsta’s Paradise.” He still makes solo records and performs with South Central Cartel, a rap group whose music videos often invoke images and lyrics associated with gangs and gang violence.
But it’s just a persona, Sanders said.
“We been singing about gangster music because that’s what we had to live through,” he said. “You know we had to dress or talk like this or act the way we act to get through life…we had riots going on, we had a lot of people dying…you can’t just say, ‘Oh, look how he’s dressed.’”
Larry Sanders (R) plays a competitive game of Dominoes with friends René Hopkins (L) and Don Ware or “Don D” before work in Green Meadows Park, Los Angeles on July 25, 2019.Jim Seida
Los Angeles was the first city to create a computerized database in 1987 to allow officers to easily access and share information with other police departments. A statewide system known as CalGang followed a few years later and was exported across the U.S. Now, there are at least 339 gang databases nationwide, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice statistics. Most are run independent of each other and without federal oversight.
Concerns over the integrity of the city’s database bubbled up in the early 1990s when the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office released a report saying nearly half of all black youths in the city were in it. The news sparked outcry from critics who said it was evidence of systematic police profiling.
Not much changed until 2016 when the state audited CalGang, revealing inaccuracies and privacy issues, including entries that listed children under a year old. It also found more than 600 records that had been in the system well beyond the standard five-year purge date, including many that were set to remain there beyond 100 years.
The audit also shined a light on the lack of oversight and transparency, leading officials to transfer supervision of CalGang from law enforcement agencies to the state Attorney General’s office. It placed a moratorium on the system while thousands of records were purged for improper entry or overdue expiration dates. As of October 2018, the database held 88,670 records, about half as many as it once did.
It also found that at least three law enforcement agencies used the database for employment screenings in violation of CalGang policy.
Since then, other states have looked to California as a bellwether for reform. In 2015, the state enacted a bill requiring police to notify minors when they were added to the database and soon extended the requirement to adults. Some states, including New York, still do not require notification.
The California Department of Justice recently proposed new regulations, which would narrow the criteria used to label someone as a gang member or associate. If approved, the rules would take effect Jan. 1. The DOJ has proposed removing several of the nebulous categories that swept Sanders up, including hanging out in gang areas and associating with gang members. Both associating with gang members and frequenting gang areas are part of Sanders’ job as an intervention worker with the Summer Night Lights Program, a city initiative that aims to reduce violence in at-risk communities.
Green Meadows Park in South Los Angeles on July 25, 2019.Jim Seida / NBC News
Sean Garcia-Leys, an attorney with the Urban Peace Institute in Los Angeles, who helped Sanders apply for removal from the database, said police discretion to interpret the already subjective criteria is vast.
“I have never heard a law enforcement officer give a workable definition of a ‘gang area,’” he said. “I don’t believe one exists.”
The term gang member is also vague. Under current rules, a member and an associate are defined the same. A person who meets at least two criteria can be classified as either. Det. Ryan Cooper, of the LAPD’s Gang and Narcotics division, said an associate is someone who admits to being affiliated with a gang but is not a full-fledged member.
In practice, the term is problematic and leaves room for broad interpretation, Garcia-Leys said. He noted that previous clients accused of admitting gang membership said police asked them, “Where are you from?” The clients’ neighborhood, which was also the name of a gang, was taken as admitting membership.
Despite critics’ concerns about profiling, police say the database is a practical investigative tool that aids in efficiency because officers no longer have to call around to other departments to track information on suspects. Cooper said a name in the database “does not prove or disprove” that the person is a gang member or associate.
Wes McBride, a retired sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and former head of the California Gang Investigators Association, helped create CalGang. The database is a “pointer system,” not a justification for arrest, he said.
“The idea is to catch murderers and criminals, not to persecute people,” McBride said. “Nobody knows you’re in there but the gang cop.”
But being labeled a gang member can have harmful effects, Garcia-Leys said.
Such people are likely to be detained longer, more likely to be searched, arrested and even insulted and threatened by officers, he said. If accused of a crime, they are also likely to receive increased charges, known as gang enhancements, and a higher bail amount than those not associated with gangs.
For people living in the U.S. without proper authorization, a listing in a gang database can result in being denied discretionary relief and increase their chances of being deported. CalGangs’ regulations specify the system is not to be used for immigration enforcement “unless required by state or federal statute.” McBride said the database was shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement years ago, until the agency began using its own database.
Ever since Sanders was added to the database, the LAPD has continued to stop him for “gang suspicions,” Garcia-Leys said. Sanders’ experience shows that some police still use the database as a justification for stop-and-frisk, he said.
Cooper and McBride pushed back on the notion that being in the database increases a person’s chances of arrest, noting that gang membership is not a crime.
“You can’t criminalize a non-criminal act,” McBride said. “You just can’t do it.”
Still, critics say police conduct during gang stops can backfire, driving young people further into gang life and fueling community mistrust of law enforcement.
Teenagers only marginally involved with a gang tend to identify more with the group after interaction with police, Garcia-Leys said. When they are “treated like gang members, these young men have this attitude…’well if that’s how you’re going to treat me, I guess that’s who I am,’” he said.
Presence in a database also makes it more difficult for individuals to leave a gang, experts say. Most young adults are out within two years of joining, said David Pyrooz, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who studies gangs.
CalGang keeps youth records for five years, but under the new proposed rules, adolescents will be held in the system for only three, unless evidence shows they are still active. But any amount of time on the database can make it more difficult to age out because police stop them more frequently, Garcia-Leys said.
Late rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was killed in March in front of his clothing store in South L.A., was also labeled a gang member. Hussle had been open about his past affiliation with the neighborhood Crip gang the Rollin’ 60s but was praised for his philanthropy and work to reduce gang violence in the community.
People outside Nipsey Hussle’s Marathon clothing store for his funeral procession in Los Angeles on April 11, 2019.Hans Gutknecht / Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images
Such labeling can trap people in the system, allowing their past to define their future, Sanders said.
“It’s like they telling you this is who you are,” Sanders said. In his 20s, Sanders was caught in the middle of neighborhood gang violence and shot nine times. He was in the hospital for eight months, and his left side was temporarily paralyzed. Sanders said he was targeted for one of the same reasons he was put on the database: he lived in the neighborhood.
As of 2018, CalGang contained the names of 20,873 people who identified as black, 5,869 as white and 58,124 Hispanic of any race. In California, only 6.5% of the population identify solely as black or African American, according to the most recent 2018 census data, yet they comprise roughly 23.5% of those in the database. Hispanics are also disproportionately represented, accounting for 65.5% of the entries but only 39.3% of the state population.
Several other cities found their databases disproportionately represented minorities, including Portland, Oregon, where police ditched the system after unfavorable media coverage. Eighty-one percent of entries were people of color, yet white power groups, which have a strong presence in Portland, are unlikely to be documented as gangs, Pyrooz said. The system’s racial and economic disparities are unlikely to change, he added.
“If you look at where white gang activity exists, it tends to be in suburban areas or rural areas that don’t have gang intelligence units and typically don’t have the level of gang violence that you find in more urban areas,” Pyrooz said.
Despite reforms to CalGang, the system is still largely reliant on police policing themselves. Law enforcement agencies are responsible for reporting violations within their own departments to the state’s Department of Justice. Audits are not independent but performed by individuals appointed by local police departments and ultimately overseen by the DOJ.
“I would like to see evidence that the benefits of a gang database outweigh the harms,” Garcia-Leys said. “I know my gut tells me they don’t.”