By John Annese
April 5, 2019
New York City’s police department has told hundreds of people that they have no right to know if the NYPD thinks they’re in a gang, the Daily News has learned.
About 350 people have filed Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests asking the NYPD if they’re listed in its controversial “gang database.” In each case the department sent a “generic response” telling them they have no business knowing, the Legal Aid Society told The News.
All of the requests, made through an automated service on Legal Aid’s website, also asked for the NYPD’s records on each person who filed a request, and how those records are shared, stored, maintained or destroyed. Legal Aid made the service available about a year ago.
“Our clients and others have the right to know this information to help defend against gang accusations made by prosecutors in court. We implore members of the public to contact us immediately if they share these concerns.” said Anthony Posada, a supervising attorney for Legal Aid.
In 2001, the database counted about 6,000 people as gang affiliates, but that number surged to more than 42,000 in February 2018.
NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea told the City Council in June that people wind up on the gang database if they admit to a cop that they’re a member or make a similar admission on social media, or if they’re identified as a member by “two independent reliable sources."
There’s another way to end up on the list -- if a person meets two or more criteria linked to gangs, such as being in a gang location, frequently wearing gang colors, using gang signs or showing up with other gang members on social media posts, Shea said.
Shea told the City Council that the NYPD had whittled the number of names on the list down to 17,500, and that it routinely expunges names by reviewing them every three years and on their 23rd and 28th birthdays.
The Freedom of Information Act in general gives people the right to request access to federal records or information, with some exceptions such as classified information concerning national security.
Exclusions specific to law enforcement protect certain informant records, as well as the existence of criminal investigations when the subject is unaware of an investigation and disclosure could interfere with it. Another limited to the FBI protects foreign intelligence, counterintelligence or international terrorism records when the existence of such records is classified.
“The NYPD maintains among the nation’s most rigorous criteria for identifying an individual as being a member of a known criminal group," NYPD spokeswoman Sgt. Jessica McRorie told the Daily News. “Whenever an inquiry has been made regarding the contents of this system, the NYPD response has been consistent with the laws governing FOIL requests.”
Still, Legal Aid said the NYPD is unwilling to tell people if they’re on the list, how it shares information on it, or how it destroys that info when someone is removed from the list.
“Such information, if disclosed, would reveal non-routine techniques and procedures," the city wrote in a July 20 email when Harlem resident Keith Shenery asked for his personal records and if he was in the database.
Shenery enlisted Legal Aid’s help after he was caught with a small bag of pot and a folding knife in April 2017, and learned in court that the police had dubbed him “one of the Top 5 Most Violent Crew members of Cash Money Boys” years earlier, when he was a minor. He contends that he was never convicted of a violent crime.
In a July 23 letter to Legal Aid, Sgt. Jordan Mazur, the NYPD’s record appeals officer, held firm, writing: “(T)he criteria for activation onto a group list is based on a variety of investigative methods, the disclosure of which would reveal non-routine criminal investigative techniques or procedures.”
Legal Aid filed a lawsuit on Shenery’s behalf in December.
“The NYPD’s gang database has needlessly ensnared thousands of New Yorkers for the clothes they wear, parks they hang out in, and connections they have on Facebook," Posada said. "It’s arbitrary, discriminatory, and over-inclusive, and carries collateral consequences that can result in the loss of work, housing, and even immigration detention and deportation.”