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Virginia police task force drops use of controversial gang database

Northern Virginia Gang Task Force officers partner with ICE officers arrest an alleged MS-13 gang member in a Manassas, Va.,  neighborhood in August 2017.
Northern Virginia Gang Task Force officers partner with ICE officers arrest an alleged MS-13 gang member in a Manassas, Va., neighborhood in August 2017. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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A Virginia gang task force has dropped use of a database that catalogues thousands of alleged gang members across the Washington region after activists raised concerns that minorities are disproportionately represented in it and its use is shrouded in secrecy.

The Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force is the first local law enforcement entity in the D.C. area to discontinue use of GangNet, according to the program that oversees use of the database in the region. The database has stirred controversy in a handful of jurisdictions across the country in recent years.

Law enforcement officials say it can be an effective tool to track and investigate gangs, but police reform advocates worry some non-gang members may be erroneously logged in it and the demographics of the database may indicate racial profiling. The advocates also object to the database because people are never told when they are included or given a chance to challenge a gang label.

Jay Lanham, executive director of the task force, said that his decision came after activists raised questions but that it had less to do with concerns of racial bias and civil liberties than more prosaic ones about the declining utility of the database. He said detectives haven’t had much time to input alleged gang members, making it less useful.

“We don’t use it that much to solve crimes in the region,” Lanham said. “Our guys haven’t found it helpful.”

The Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force includes agencies from 15 jurisdictions, including Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria, as well as the Virginia State Police.

GangNet is used by more than 120 law enforcement agencies in Maryland, Virginia and D.C., and contains nearly 7,800 alleged gang members, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA), which runs it. It’s been in use for about a decade.

Local jails and prisons use it to screen incoming inmates for gang affiliations, so they don’t place them with rival gang members. Detectives use it for information while investigating gang crimes and some beat officers also use it on patrol.

Law enforcement agencies from Baltimore to Richmond place people suspected of being gang members in the system if they meet two criteria from a list that 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.

The data is for intelligence purposes only, so it can’t form the basis of probable cause to make an arrest or place charges. Entries are purged from the system if there is no criminal activity in five years.

But law enforcement agencies don’t tell people when they have been included in the database or comply with requests to reveal whether someone has been added.

Tom Carr, executive director of HIDTA, said GangNet regularly helps crack gang-related crimes.

“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.”

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In his view, the gang task force dropping the database could be detrimental to police.

“It could really hamstring investigations and jeopardize officers’ safety by not being able to know you are dealing with an identified gang member,” Carr said.

But Kofi Annan, executive director of the Activated People, a police reform group, said the opacity around the database was troubling. He was also concerned that nearly 80 percent of people logged are Black or Latino, while Whites make up 20 percent, according to HIDTA statistics.

“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.”

Annan said he worried the overrepresentation of minorities in the database was a result of racial profiling by police. Carr said no racial profiling was occurring.

Carr said that most of the gangs in the area draw from minority communities and that jails and prisons, which have large minority populations, are responsible for the greatest number of adds to the database, skewing its demographics.

“We are very cautious about entering people in the gang database,” Carr said.

But some activists suspect some people are being erroneously entered into the database, although it’s difficult to know for sure because HIDTA does not make the information public.

Kelly White, a senior program director at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, pointed to the case of a Salvadoran immigrant who was deported in 2017 after seeking asylum in the United States because he feared gang violence in his homeland.

The man, who spoke on a phone call from El Salvador via an interpreter, said he drew the scrutiny of authorities after a killing in his Stafford County neighborhood. Local police investigating the slaying visited the home where he lived and asked for social media handles for him and other immigrants, he said.

Soon after, the man said he was detained in an immigration raid. At a bond hearing in immigration court, White said the government alleged that the man was involved with MS-13. She said they produced photos of the man that appeared to be culled from social media that showed him wearing Nike Cortez sneakers — popular with MS-13 members — and photos that they alleged showed him using gang signs.

White said the government never revealed how they got the photos, but White suspects the man may have been entered into GangNet and turned up in a background search.

The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears gangs in El Salvador, said he was not a gang member, and family members testified on his behalf at the hearing.

White said the man was never charged in connection with the slaying and had no serious criminal record or gang offenses.

A bill before the Virginia legislature would bring more clarity to cases like that of the Salvadoran man.

Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax) has introduced legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to notify individuals of their intent to place them in gang databases and give them an opportunity to challenge the designation if they so choose. It would also require law enforcement agencies to report the number of people they are placing in gang databases.

Virginia is not the only place where GangNet has drawn scrutiny. Attorneys and elected officials have raised similar concerns over immigrants being wrongly added to GangNet in Prince George’s County, Md.

“There was no justice,” the Salvadoran man said of his situation. “It was very unfair being accused of being a gang member.”

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