Recent revelations from public records requests brought to light that the New York Police Department (NYPD) under Mayor Bill De Blasio quietly grew its gang database by more than three times. According to these documents, the database continues to grow at this alarming rate, despite gang-related crime making up only about 1 percent of all reported crime in the city, which is itself experiencing very low crime rates compared to previous decades.

While those with differing opinions on law enforcement may or may not agree with this practice, from a criminal defense perspective, it is alarming to say to the least. Many of the individuals on the list have not received any criminal charges to the knowledge of the police, but their mere alleged affiliation with a “gang” is enough to compromise their rights.

What is a gang?

Part of what is so concerning about this practice is the vague way in which the NYPD defines the term “gang” for the purposes of their database. According to documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests, the department considers a gang “a group of persons with a formal or informal structure that includes designated leaders and members, that engage in or are suspected to engage in unlawful conduct.”

This can include may individuals who never commit any particular crime, stacking prejudice against them in the name of law enforcement. Under this definition, a church group on a trip to an amusement park might qualify as a gang if the vans they travel in break the speed limit.

Innocent until proven guilty?

Possibly the most concerning aspect of this database and its broad definitions is that it allows police to profile individuals who have not committed any crimes, as long as police suspect them of committing a crime.

It does not take years of criminal defense practice as an attorney to see that this is very close to replicating the infamous Stop and Frisk policies that gave police the legal authority to racially profile suspects.

Furthermore, the behaviors that the documents list as potentially indicating gang activity could apply to just about anyone at some time or another, especially young people. These include “changes in behavior” and “staying our late”, as well as using apps like Snapchat or playing video games. According to some of these NYPD protocols, simply having friends and being a young person in New York City might justify adding a name to the gang database.

Defend your rights now

If you find yourself facing criminal charges of any kind, especially if the NYPD uses their gang database to justify your arrest, it is absolutely essential that you fight the charges with everything tool you have available. Not only can you work to keep your rights secure, you can help stand up to unethical law enforcement for yourself and many others.