Identifying gang members in St. Paul
Here’s my recent story in the TC Daily Planet about how St. Paul labels someone as a gang member.
St.Paul forum sheds light on police “gang member” database
BY ANNA PRATT , TC DAILY PLANET July 30, 2009
A handful of St. Paul and Ramsey County officials fielded questions during a community meeting on July 28 about how authorities identify “confirmed gang members.” While a St. Paul police spokesperson said the system is based on documented gang activity, some community members believe it’s too subjective.
One major concern is that once a person is labeled as a gang member, rightly or wrongly, there’s no clear way to fight it. His or her name goes into several databases, including one that’s statewide. For those who are put into the system, the label could have lifelong consequences, including legal repercussions (if he or she is ever accused of a crime).
In a recent example, St. Paul used temporary injunctions against 18 members of the warring East Side Boys and Selby Siders as a way to prevent violence at the Rondo Days Festival. The gang members were not to be seen with each other, or to display signs of gang affiliation. At least one gang member was eventually asked to leave the premises, according to police information, and the festival went on peacefully.
While some public officials see that as a sign of success, others say actions such as injunctions may be detrimental, especially for those who have been misidentified. A Pioneer Press article tells the story of 23-year-old Jumoke Cryer, who disputes his confirmed gang status. Cryer, a college student who was among those whose Rondo Days activities were restricted, said he’s being pressured by his family to leave the state, to avoid future problems.
During the meeting, attendee James Shelton offered up a similar account about his son. Shelton said his son has been wrongly accused of being a gang member. However, the purpose of the July 28 meeting at the Hallie Q. Brown Center wasn’t so much to air grievances as to shed light on the process and to hear directly from the decision-makers, according to some of its organizers.
The meeting was billed by organizers as a first step, opening the lines of communication between police and the community. Jeff Martin, who chairs the St. Paul NAACP’s legal redress committee and who kept the meeting on point, said that it was an opportunity for people to “come and learn,” stressing, “Don’t think we can solve everything tonight. We hope to provide information and guidelines.”
Tina McNamara, who leads the St. Paul Police Department’s (SPPD) gang unit, went over the gang identification guidelines. SPPD uses the Pointer System, which was originally developed by the now suspended Metro Gang Strike Force. According to the Strike Force’s website, the database was put together as a “law enforcement tool, an officer safety tool, and as a tool for the judiciary.”
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) manages this data. Someone who is considered to be a gang member meets at least three of 10 different Pointer criteria, McNamara said. The criteria include admitting to being in a gang, associating with gang members or having related tattoos or symbols.
In addition to observed activities, photos that show someone hanging out with gang members or throwing up hand signs, or being named in a gang document or identified by a reliable source, may be incriminating, she explained. The list only includes those who are least 14 years old and have been convicted of a gross misdemeanor or felony, McNamara said. In response to criticisms that the requirements are vague, she said, “To me, they’re very specific. Police officers document it. It’s documented or observed.” For example, “If someone admits to being in a gang, then they’ve told us.” Further, “Tattoos are something that don’t go away.”
Officers are trained early on in the police academy to identify gang members, she said. But for some community members, it wasn’t comforting, given the fact that there’s no way to contest confirmed gang member status. It’s also unclear what is to become of former gang members. McNamara acknowledged that, “There’s no known protocol for getting off the list. We want to reach out and talk about how to change that.”
Nekima Levy-Pounds, an associate law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, said some of the requirements are subjective. “What if someone in your family is involved with a gang and you may not be, but you’re observed to associate with that family member? Or you get into a situation where you’re in a photo with a gang member?” She also touched on community concerns centered on racial profiling, raising the issue of accountability.
Too often, African American teens and young adults end up on the list. SPPD assistant police chief Nancy Di Perna said the SPPD collects and vets data before it goes anywhere else. Commanders in the Special Investigations Unit review the information, she said. “Is it infallible? No.” The question goes beyond the scope of the gang topic, she said. It’s about what the community wants police officers to be, she said. They’re given a lot of discretion: “I can’t tell you that there’s a system in place to review every report and make sure someone isn’t lying. There has to be trust.”
Phil Carruthers, an assistant county attorney, clarified that in Minnesota it’s not illegal to be a gang member. “There may be implications, but you have not committed a crime by being on the list,” he said. “There has to be a crime done for the benefit of the gang.” Gang members may face increased penalties for committing a crime. “If someone is a gang member and is on probation for a felony, associating with other gang members may violate his or her probation,” he said.
A claim that someone is no longer involved in a gang is the type of thing that gets raised in trial. “It becomes a defense,” he said. “Defenses are available to raise issues. That’s why people are afforded counsel.”