Last year, Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez—a Chicago father of three—was met with a horrifying surprise. The Chicago police raided his home one evening and arrested him, citing that his name was listed in the city’s gang database.
Their information, however, was incorrect. Catalan-Ramirez was a law-abiding resident. Nonetheless, the police turned him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and threatened to deport him. He was detained for 10 months before finally being released earlier this year.
A recent investigative report on the Chicago police department’s gang database reveals that the above mistake was not a one-off error. In fact, there are many concerning aspects of how this list is developed and validated.
How do you get on the list?
The report found the police determination of whether an individual is in a gang to be largely subjective. In some cases, just living in the wrong neighborhood can land you on the list. If you have a gang tattoo, you could be automatically classified as an active gang member. If a “reliable source” tells police that you’re in a gang—even if they don’t provide proof—you can be added to the list. In some cases, you can get added to the list just for being pulled over—even if you aren’t arrested. In addition, if you’re affiliated with the Black Panther political party, you could end up on the list.
The Chicago police have maintained the gang database for decades. In 1984, the list contained the names of 700 people who were suspected of being gang members. Today, that number has swelled to a whopping 128,000. Thousands of individuals with no arrest record have been added to the list in the last three years alone.
The demographic breakdown of the individuals in the gang database is also concerning: 95 percent are people of color.
Why it matters
If you ever get in trouble with the law and discover your name is on this list, it puts you in an extremely disadvantageous position. The police frequently use this database as evidence in court, and if a jury wrongly believes you’re in a gang, it could affect their likelihood to convict.
Even if you have no run-in with the law, your alleged gang affiliation could also come up in background checks and affect your ability to get a job. Getting yourself removed from the list can be quite difficult.
Beyond that, once you’re on the list, your alleged gang affiliation never expires. Currently there are 163 people in their 70s and 80s on the list.
If you discover that the Chicago police have falsely flagged you as a gang member, it’s critical to get strong legal representation to defend yourself.