My View: Halting gang database a concern
Recently the Portland Police Bureau decided to halt its two-decade practice of maintaining an active gang database, a repository of knowledge on local gangs, their members and gang associates. While gang databases remain a contentious issue, with their over-inclusiveness of minorities and disputes on their quality and accuracy, they remain a central tool used by law enforcement and prosecutors as well as correctional staff to identify and monitor gang members and their patterns of activity.
Given that gang scholars have long identified gang members as having a greater likelihood of engaging in delinquent and criminal activities, it is no surprise that the criminal justice system has endeavored to observe and control such criminogenic individuals. The consequences of permanently eliminating Portland's database could produce serious negative consequences.
For instance, a recent study examined the temporary five-month disbandment and renovation of a police gang unit in Los Angeles and found that both the collection of gang intelligence and the ability to arrest gang members was significantly impaired. This abrupt shock not only impacted the ability to make gang arrests for newly minted officers in the gang unit but also non-gang unit personnel (e.g., patrol officers). Even after the reconstituted gang unit was operational, levels of gang enforcement never returned to pre-disbandment levels.
While the Portland Police Bureau is not eradicating its gang units, it is clearly disrupting the collection of gang intelligence, an investigative tool necessary to solve violent crimes that are gang-related (e.g., homicide, drive-by shooting). The loss of a gang database mirrors the removal of an established gang unit in that the institutional knowledge of active gang members and associates in Portland is being purged from the Portland Police Bureau. As Capt. Mike Krantz said, "Gang violence isn't going to go away." However, the department's comprehension of gang dynamics will be weakened by no longer having a repository of gang intelligence that transcends any particular personnel.
This is not to say that maintaining a flawed gang database is the answer, but neither is the complete abandonment of an important resource for investigating gang-related crimes. As an alternative, improvements should be enacted to increase the utility and transparency of the gang database. More rigorous methods for identification of gang members should be employed, along with reasonable and responsible purging procedures for former gang members.
Public safety is not a zero sum game. Presuming that the removal of the gang database will have no impact on gang enforcement in Portland is imprudent. Instead of insisting that the police dissolve this valuable resource for monitoring trends in gang activity, residents and city officials should create accountable policies to objectively maintain the gang database and demonstrate its utility as a tool that can be responsibly used to address gang-related violence.