What makes someone a gang member? State revising criteria

/ 16 March 2012 / jennifer

Mara H. Gottfried, Pioneer Press, March 16, 2012 –

What makes someone a gang member?

After a 1997 state law directed the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to create a database of gang members, a law enforcement panel came up with 10 criteria for inclusion. Those criteria included admitting gang membership or association, being in a photograph with known gang members and being identified as a gang member by a reliable source.

Now, the state is seeking to revise the guidelines and is asking the public to weigh in.

The state’s Violent Crime Coordinating Council has made “moderate revisions to help clarify the language,” said Plymouth Police Chief Mike Goldstein, who chairs the VCCC’s data and information subcommittee.

The new proposed criteria have nine points, Goldstein said.

State law says that to be a “confirmed gang member,” someone must be at least 14 years old, been convicted of a gross misdemeanor or felony-level crime involving narcotics or crime against persons offense, and meet at least three of the gang identification criteria.

The Minnesota Legislature in 2010 directed that the VCCC develop a strategy to address the harm caused to the public by gang and drug crimes, and one task was reviewing the gang criteria, Goldstein said.

The VCCC added more details to the criteria “to help guide officers to make better determinations,” Goldstein said. “We want to be as accurate as possible before we start classifying people, and therefore the qualifying criteria in each of the nine points

will help us do a better job.”

Goldstein said the draft criteria, compared with the existing points, is “far further defined. It’s more specific and explicit behavior that needs to be demonstrated other than generalities that previously existed.”

Nate Browning, a St. Paul resident who works with high-risk and delinquent youth, has attended VCCC meetings about the gang criteria. Browning said he doesn’t see much difference from the existing criteria. And he thinks both cast a wide net, in some cases wrongly labeling young people as gang members.

Browning estimates that one out of 70 juveniles he works with each year is truly a gang member, but “a good 50 percent or more would meet the criteria,” he said.

“Some of these kids just flirt with the gang, some associate with gang members. It does not mean they are in the gang,” Browning said. “That’s the social behavior of adolescents.”

For young people mislabeled as gang members, Browning said he thinks there are serious repercussions: They’re stigmatized in school and police might stop them more, which can turn them bitter toward police.

“It usually impacts how they view society,” Browning said. “It’s a terrible thing to be labeled as a gang member when you’re not really in a gang.”

Goldstein said he, too, worries about people being misclassified, and that’s “why we wanted to tighten down the criteria,” but he contends that someone who has been entered in a state database as a gang member would not be subject to more stops from police.

“We don’t run people (in the database) at random,” Goldstein said.

Police already would have stopped someone, say, for a traffic violation, before an officer runs the name in a state database and gets word that the person is a gang member.

St. Paul police Cmdr. Paul Iovino, who heads the department’s gang unit, said law enforcement’s overall aim in using the criteria to identify who is and who is not a gang member is “increasing public safety.”

“We use them to ensure that our resources are properly allocated, that our prevention and intervention efforts are aimed appropriately, as well as our enforcement, when that’s necessary,” Iovino said.

Iovino said he believes the new criteria will “require police departments to have a higher standard and level of training and scrutiny for identifying individuals that may fit into those criteria, and I think that’s a good thing.”

For example, if a St. Paul patrol officer sees someone with a tattoo that he thinks is for a gang, it will fall to a gang investigator in the department to do more research to confirm that it is a gang tattoo, Iovino said. The investigator will be expected to ask the person questions such as, “What does that tattoo mean to you? When did you get that tattoo? Are you still associated with that gang? Was that part of your initiation?” Iovino said.

The public comment period on the draft criteria began Feb. 23 and ends March 25.

Then, the VCCC will finalize its recommended criteria and present them to Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman. Dohman will have the final say on adopting them.

The VCCC held three community forums to seek feedback from the public, Goldstein said.

Law enforcement in the state previously entered the names of suspected gang members into a database called GangNet, which was maintained by the Ramsey County sheriff’s office and launched by former Sheriff Bob Fletcher. Current Sheriff Matt Bostrom said in August that it wasn’t the best vehicle for law enforcement to share information about the state’s most violent offenders and stopped using it.

GangNet had a lower threshold for identifying people as gang members. Names entered into GangNet that met the state definition of “confirmed gang member” went into another database, the Minnesota Gang Pointer File.

Since GangNet was shut down, law enforcement has not added new names to the Pointer File, said Jill Oliveira, BCA spokeswoman. As of Jan. 31, there were still 1,555 names in the Pointer File, she said.

Names in the Pointer File can come up when law enforcement, probation and corrections officers in Minnesota search the Law Enforcement Message Switch, a system that queries multiple law enforcement databases at one time.

The BCA continues to purge names from the Pointer File, according to state law that says people should be removed if there are no new convictions or criteria in three years, Oliveira said.

Goldstein said he believes the VCCC will look at a law enforcement data system of gang members in the future.

Mara H. Gottfried can be reached at 651-228-5262. Follow her attwitter.com/MaraGottfried or twitter.com/ppUsualSuspects.