Under Bloomberg, the NYPD Massively Expanded Its Racist Gang Database

Stop-and-frisk has received more attention, but Bloomberg’s role in broadening New York’s discriminatory gang database should raise serious concern about what his presidency would look like.

Josmar Trujillo March 2, 2020

As New York mayor, Mike Bloomberg criminalized communities of color. (Photo by Daniel Barry/Getty Images)

In the sum­mer of 2013, many activists, like myself, were protest­ing then-New York May­or Mike Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk pro­gram, a con­tro­ver­sial police tac­tic that became a cen­ter­piece of his admin­is­tra­tion. May­or Bloomberg’s racist polic­ing régime was fueled by both his per­son­al arro­gance and the hard-charg­ing style of his police com­mis­sion­er, Ray Kel­ly, a for­mer marine. Lit­tle did we know, how­ev­er, that Bloomberg and Kel­ly were at the time qui­et­ly expand­ing anoth­er strat­e­gy designed to harass and incar­cer­ate young New York­ers of col­or: the NYPD gang database.

Bloomberg's legacy of overseeing a massive expansion of New York City’s gang database must be remembered alongside the injustices of stop-and-frisk.

A year before, Com­mis­sion­er Kel­ly had announced a dou­bling of the NYPD’s gang unit. Oper­a­tion Crew Cut, a pro­gram where police — in col­lab­o­ra­tion with pros­e­cu­tors — sur­veilled social media and built intel­li­gence on young peo­ple they deemed to be gang-involved, was begin­ning to take shape more pub­licly. By 2013, Bloomberg’s last year in office, report­ed stop-and-frisks began to decline while the piv­ot to track­ing and dis­man­tling crews” was in full swing, even as many anti-vio­lence activists and young men tar­get­ed described the tac­tic as a vir­tu­al stop and frisk.”

Bloomberg had become may­or in 2002, and from 2003 to 2013, the NYPD added over 20,000 peo­ple to a secret gang data­base, accord­ing to doc­u­ments obtained by CUNY Law Pro­fes­sor Babe How­ell. The NYPD had oper­at­ed a gang data­base with about 5,000 peo­ple since at least 2001. And while there may not have been a direct order from Bloomberg to expand the list, all New York City may­ors over­see and man­age the NYPD, mean­ing what hap­pens in the depart­ment falls at their feet. And under Bloomberg, the police depart­ment dra­mat­i­cal­ly expand­ed the gang database.

More than 99% of those list­ed dur­ing Bloomberg’s admin­is­tra­tion were non-white. Of those 20,000, 30% were minors when they were added. You could be entered by per­son­nel from the police depart­ment, or from intel­li­gence giv­en to the police from the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and even the school safe­ty offi­cers that patrolled NYC pub­lic schools.

There was (and remains) no way to find out if you are in the data­base, let alone chal­lenge your des­ig­na­tion as a gang mem­ber. The cri­te­ria for inclu­sion, accord­ing to How­ell’s pub­lic-records request, includ­ed where you live, who you know, and if you wear cer­tain col­ors. And, con­trary to what one might think of some­one who is gang-involved,” you do not need to be con­vict­ed of a crime, accord­ing to pub­lic records requests and NYPD tes­ti­mo­ny as recent­ly as 2018.

As Bloomberg and Kel­ly faced mount­ing pub­lic pres­sure against stop-and-frisk, as well as their Mus­lim map­ping pro­gram, the NYPD was beef­ing up its Juve­nile Jus­tice divi­sion, which increas­ing­ly mon­i­tored social media and lumped youth togeth­er as crews” — infor­mal asso­ci­a­tions that pros­e­cu­tors began to charge like orga­nized crim­i­nal syndicates.

The NYPD’s turn to a more expand­ed and sophis­ti­cat­ed gang enforce­ment appa­ra­tus dur­ing this time con­flict­ed with the fact that alleged gangs account for a tiny frac­tion of over­all crime in the city. And cat­a­loging peo­ple in the gang data­base could result in seri­ous con­se­quences: enhanced bail in court, increased harass­ment on the street, exclu­sion from pub­lic hous­ing and, most notably, being swept up in so-called gang take­downs” — mil­i­ta­rized police sweeps.

Bloomberg’s police depart­ment set the stage for ramped-up gang enforce­ment, and under May­or Bill de Bla­sio (who is cur­rent­ly repu­di­at­ing Bloomberg’s lega­cy as a sur­ro­gate for pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bernie Sanders), the NYPD took full advan­tage of it. Under de Bla­sio, the depart­ment added over 17,000 peo­ple to the data­base in just a 5‑year span, a faster rate than under Bloomberg. 

Dub­bing the approach Pre­ci­sion Polic­ing,” de Bla­sio’s NYPD went on to launch the largest gang take­down in the city’s his­to­ry just five months into his first term. That 2014 take­down in Harlem net­ted 103 indict­ments and raised seri­ous con­cerns among res­i­dents and fam­i­ly mem­bers who want­ed the city to invest resources into the neigh­bor­hood — not gang raids. Less than two years lat­er, de Bla­sio’s NYPD helped break that record with mass arrests and the indict­ment of 120 most­ly young Black men in a fed­er­al­ly-assist­ed gang take­down in the Bronx. 

This Bronx 120” take­down became the focus of a blis­ter­ing report by How­ell that showed most peo­ple arrest­ed weren’t accused of vio­lence and weren’t even deemed gang mem­bers by pros­e­cu­tors. The oper­a­tion saw Home­land Secu­ri­ty armored cars parked in the mid­dle of hous­ing projects and led to dozens being charged under RICO, the fed­er­al strat­e­gy devised in 1970 to counter the Mafia. One of those arrest­ed, Kraig Lewis, a post-grad stu­dent in Con­necti­cut that grew up in the Bronx, became the focus of a doc­u­men­tary, Trou­ble Finds You, about his jour­ney to fed­er­al prison and back after being charged with racketeering.

Gang data­bas­es around the coun­try have recent­ly come under increased scruti­ny, not unlike stop-and-frisk. In Chica­go, local activists have led a cam­paign to abol­ish their city’s gang data­base, and in Cal­i­for­nia, elite police units have been accused of fal­si­fy­ing records to tag peo­ple in their data­base. As such, Bloomberg’s lega­cy of over­see­ing a mas­sive expan­sion of New York City’s gang data­base must be remem­bered along­side the injus­tices of stop-and-frisk.

For those who care about racial and social jus­tice, one has to won­der if Bloomberg will ever be forced to account for how police crim­i­nal­ize com­mu­ni­ties of col­or under the ban­ner of fight­ing gangs. At the con­trols of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, which under Don­ald Trump has ramped up gang crack­downs as part of its immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy, his­to­ry tells us that a poten­tial Pres­i­dent Bloomberg would bol­ster an already dis­crim­i­na­to­ry fed­er­al gang data­base sys­tem. This prospect presents a dan­ger­ous sce­nario for both Black and immi­grant communities.

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