Unusual collaboration leads to changes in police gang policy

From the start, there was something of a consensus on the need to revise the Metropolitan Police Department gang identification policy.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie could tell that some people who attended the department’s monthly Multi-Cultural Advisory Committee didn’t like some aspects of the existing policy, which dictates how the department collects information about who belongs to what gang, and who’s a gang “affiliate,” a person not admitted to the gang, but who associates with members. That information is then stored in the department’s records.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada’s general counsel, Allen Lichtenstein, was outraged at the policy, which he saw as being rife with subjectivity and the potential to brand innocent people as gang members simply because of where they lived or who their family members were.

Changes needed to be made, but instead of fighting the issue in court or in the pages of the newspaper, a subcommittee was formed to recommend fixes.

And it worked.

Members hammered out some compromises that allow Metro’s gang unit to maintain a database of gang members for investigative purposes, while allowing members of the community the ability to object if they feel they’ve been included in the files erroneously. And the criteria for what gets a person classified as a gang member or affiliate have been toughened, too.

“We want to make sure it’s right, it’s legitimate and it’s ethically correct,” said Deputy Chief Al Salinas, who oversees the entire Investigative Services Division, which includes the Gang Crimes Bureau. “No other agency in the country is doing this, that we’re aware of.”

Changes include striking the policy of identifying people as gang members or affiliates in part based on whether they are found in “known gang areas.”

“It’s not your fault if you live in a housing project that’s littered with gang members,” Salinas said.

Other changes include forcing officers to be much more specific when filling out field interview cards for those suspected of being gang members. It’s no longer sufficient to simply list “gang dress” as a criteria. Now supervisors want to know much more about why an officer believes particular articles of clothing indicate a person is a member or affiliate of a gang. Lichtenstein points out that many innocent youths wear clothes that may be favored by gangs.

Another change: An appeal process. Once an adult is included in Metro files as a gang member or affiliate, a letter is sent to that person’s home address indicating the same, along with information about how to appeal that designation. Many of these letters are returned as undeliverable, Salinas said, but they’re kept as proof the department tried to reach out. And in the case of juveniles, a Metro detective and a community specialist will make a home visit, informing parents that their child was observed with gang members and offering them resources to help keep their children out of gang life.

“Gang members recruit just like police departments do,” Salinas said. The new policy is aimed at disrupting that recruitment.

Even claiming to be a gang member — which many people do, sometimes flashing gang signs at officers — isn’t enough to get on the gang list now. That information has to be corroborated by other sources before it’s considered confirmed.

Salinas said the policy is still subject to change, which makes Lichtenstein happy. He said he was pleased at the progress made with Metro, although he said he’d like to see further changes that make the policy even less subjective. A gang designation can have serious import for a person, affecting their education, future job prospects or ability to enlist in the military.

“This is progress. This is not the ideal document,” he said. “It’s more positive than I thought we were going to get.”

Gillespie said he was pleased with the outcome of the talks, too.

“It’s another example of how we’ve grown as an organization,” he said. “I don’t think either side got exactly what they wanted, which is probably a good thing.”

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.