By Richard B. Muhammad and Charlene Muhammad The Final Call Newspaper @TheFinalCall
LOS ANGELES—When a mother got a letter from police saying her son was in a gang and was being included in a gangbanger database, she knew something was wrong.
Her son had no gang affiliation.
Now, after months of investigation, 20 Los Angeles officers are under investigation into wrongly entering youngsters into a major gang database. Field interview cards, which cops use when talking to people, may have been filled out wrong and tagged youth as gangbangers who aren’t.
Probes, promises and police violations?
The investigation and police chief Michel Moore’s promises to deal with any misconduct rekindled anger and suspicion about how officers target Black and Latino youth and dump them into the criminal justice system.
Blacks say such police behavior goes back as far as the 1980s with misuse of so-called gang databases. Entry into the gang database can be done if the youngster hasn’t committed a crime or openly declared a gang connection. Officers may catalogue young people based on clothing, tattoos, geography, acquaintances or other dubious reasons, said activists.
The mother in the San Fernando Valley who challenged how her son was labeled and complained to a supervisor last year opened the door and larger problems loom. In her son’s case, body cam footage didn’t jibe with the field report.
Her son was removed from the database but trouble continues for the Los Angeles Police Department, which has a long history of misconduct, violence and has been trying to rehabilitate its image.
Some aren’t convinced or impressed.
It took two months for Demetra Johnson to get her then-16-year-old son Kevin removed from the California gang database. “We called down and told them that that was impossible,” she said. “They said we had to show written proof. We had to produce school records. We even informed them that at that point, he had graduated from the L.A. Police Academy Cadet Corps.”
The cadet corps is like an official junior police program run by LAPD.
“That wasn’t enough! They sent a response saying that we need to bring him into the station and show that he didn’t have any tattoos,” said Ms. Johnson.
Seeing no tattoos, Kevin was finally removed from the database, she said. But that experience and the death of his brother at the hands of Los Angeles County Sheriffs soured Kevin, who joined the military, she said.
“At the time I feel like I lost both my boys. One left to go to join the service and one was taken from me. I still got a 13-year-old here with me, and he’s like a hybrid of them both. He’s doing well as can be expected,” Ms. Johnson said.
“I think we should really put that in perspective, that we’re talking about the same unit that was proven to be stopping Black people more, proven to be searching Black people more, even though we’re found to have engaged in criminal activity less,” she added.
The gang database trap snared her son Kevin in 2016—again raising fears targeting isn’t new or happenstance.
Chief Moore has promised video from police cams will be regularly reviewed when encounters don’t involve crimes or arrests to detect problems.
In December, LAPD went public about a nine-month-old probe of three officers in the Metropolitan Crime Suppression Van Nuys Division that kicked up the controversy. The LAPD investigation grew to include officers who may have worked with the initial trio.
The number now includes other officers who could have falsely added names to the database, with some 20 officers under scrutiny for inconsistencies in their reports.
Ten have been reassigned, sent home, suspended or relieved of their peace officer powers pending the investigation outcome.
Another 10 were put on desk duty because of suspicions or allegations of wrongdoing to protect the officers and public as investigations take place, said Chief Moore.
That’s not enough, many complain.
“This is tyranny! This is suppression! We have to take some responsibility—Black leadership—and we’ve allowed this enemy to pass policies, ordinances, all kinds of crap that is against our cultural expression,” said Abdul Malik Syeed Muhammad, Nation of Islam Western Region student minister based in Los Angeles. He was formerly known as Tony Muhammad.
“All of these kinds of policies come right up out of the Jim Crow laws. Nothing has changed,” he said.
“We didn’t know this? When Chief Moore reached out for me and explained that he was upset about it and was going to get down the bottom of it, I said to him, ‘Getting down to the bottom of it is eradicating it all together!’ ” said Min. Syeed Muhammad.
“Where is your gang list of Caucasian children? Are White children being placed in that database, or is it just people of color?”
The police chief apologized for any actions undermining public trust, vowed to correct current problems and prevent future problems during an annual year end press conference Jan. 15 at LAPD headquarters.
Later members of the Southern California Cease Fire Committee, a coalition of gang interventionists, mothers of murdered children, and other grassroots activists who promote peace on the streets, questioned Chief Moore on his plans. They expressed concern about the continued criminalization of youth. They also offered solutions.
Community members across the board, from youth to activists to faith-based leaders and legal experts, said the LAPD’s own admissions confirm what they have complained about and fought against for decades: Police have been fabricating information with no factual basis whatsoever, they said.
Davey D, hip hop journalist and activist, took the problem back to “Operation Hammer” during infamous LAPD Chief Daryl Gates’ war on gangs. He waged war through mass arrests, SWAT raids, and mandatory curfews.
His initiative started in April 1987 under C.R.A.S.H. (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), a specialized unit of Rampart Division officers trained to combat gang-related crime from 1979 to 2000. The C.R.A.S.H. unit was disbanded after the notorious 1990s “Rampart Scandal.” It involved widespread corruption within C.R.A.S.H. Approximately 140 settlements in civil suits cost the city of Los Angeles over $125 million.
“The gang database or the concept behind it has always been used as a weapon by the police against the community, and it was most glaring in the late ’80s under Operation Hammer, when Daryl Gates was around,” said Davey D.
“In this case, in L.A., them doing this first of all, one would have thought that they would have learned the lessons from Rodney King,” said Davey D regarding widespread protests after a predominantly White jury in Simi Valley, then a predominantly White suburb of Los Angeles, acquitted officers who mob-style brutalized the Black motorist during a 1991 traffic stop.
“I think by the time you have the Rodney King uprising, you had damned near half of L.A.’s Black male population under a certain age that were put into the gang database. Now that should have just been alarming unto itself, but here we are 25, 30 years later, and this is still happening, with no consequences,” Davey D told The Final Call.
If cops are being placed on desk duty but not charged with falsifying information, that’s cause for concern, he added.
A faulty system with documented problems
A 2016 California State Audit found the CalGang Criminal Intelligence System’s weak oversight structure does not ensure law enforcement agencies collect and maintain data in a manner that preserves individual privacy rights.
In “Tracked and Trapped—Youth of Color, Gang Databases and Gang Injunctions,” preliminary research found most people were added to the gang database without having been arrested or accused of criminal conduct.
Gang officers in neighborhoods and school districts could question anyone, starting in elementary school, about nicknames, family members, friends and where they hung out or lived, according to the first comprehensive report about how CalGang impacted communities and youth.
People had no way of knowing or opportunity to appeal, the report added.
Advocates, including the Youth Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter, sent letters of recommendation and demands for reforms and eradication of the gang database to California Attorney General Javier Becerra.
LAPD is working with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office to determine if there was criminal wrongdoing by the first three officers in the initial probe, and similar conversations regarding other officers they worked with have begun, according to Chief Moore.
Chief Moore expects to make a decision in about a month after the investigation is complete.
Cops who made a mistake will be disciplined and retrained, both those who lied stand to face harsher penalties like termination, said police officials.
Gang database never helped increase peace
Ansar Muhammad, co-founder of the gang intervention H.E.L.P.E.R. (Help Establish Learning Peace Economics and Righteousness) Foundation, never found the gang database useful. The falsification of data hurt the work of peacekeepers on the streets, he said.
“There was never any community input. It was always law enforcement-driven, but if community folks were in the conversation, then maybe yeah, it’s okay. But the community was never involved in that decision-making process,” said Ansar Muhammad, who is also a coordinator of the Nation of Islam Study Group in Lancaster, Calif.
Half of Black men were put in the gang database
CalGang began as a way to simplify the process of storing and sharing street gang data.
Each law enforcement agency had its own way of gathering and filing such data, and not all agencies used the system, because it was not mandated.
LAPD started a database too, according to Sean Garcia-Leys, senior staff attorney for the Urban Peace Institute. The District Attorney’s Office assessed the programs, made them combine the systems into one countywide network it could access, he recalled.
“That’s the study that found that 50 percent of all young Black men in Los Angeles had been put on one of those two databases as gang members,” Atty. Garcia-Leys told The Final Call. “It is a shocking number.”
Placement in the database is like having a scarlet letter. It prevents people from getting jobs if cases go to court and the information is made public, activists said. In addition, people in the database can face tougher laws, called gang enhancements, and greater scrutiny from police for minor offenses or when innocent.
But, some activists added, the system is doing what it was created to do.
“They literally see Black people with targets on our backs, and that’s what the data is showing here. There’s a history that we can actually go back, not just to the ’80s and ’90s, but we can go all the way back to the 19th century, 18th century even and look at who they were as slavecatchers,” said Dr. Melina Abdullah, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and professor of Pan African Studies at California State University Los Angeles.
The remedy isn’t a kinder, gentler police, but community responses to police, activists said.
Black Lives Matter and community partners want Chief Moore to disband the Metro Division, release all names of the suspect officers, and then put the cops on a do not call list to prevent city and district attorneys from using corrupt officers as witnesses in cases.
All charges should be dropped against those prosecuted as a result of arrests by the officers accused of corruption; the officers prosecuted; there should be the immediate release of those incarcerated as a result of the officers’ corrupt practices, and their convictions overturned, said activists.
“And then, finally, we want the mayor of Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti, to establish and fund what we’re calling a Reparations Unit, because what they’ve been doing in South Los Angeles causes harm—not only to those who were arrested, those who were criminalized as a result of these corrupt practices—but to the entire community, so we want remedies for those individuals. But we also want the rest of the community to receive remedies and not thorough the police. We need more resources in South L.A., not more police,” Dr. Abdullah said.
A prophetic voice and warning about the war on Black youth
While activists and advocates have worked on the problem of police misconduct and targeting of the Black community, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan has provided a prophetic warning about the plans of the U.S. government to go to war against a small Islamic nation, Black people and Black youth in particular.
His warning began following a 1985 vision-like experience in Mexico, involving the “Wheels” prophesized in Ezekiel in the bible and commonly called UFOs by this world with a message from the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad that the president and his Joint Chiefs of Staff had met to plan a war. Initially, he understood the war to be with Libya, which was bombed by the U.S. in 1986. Min. Farrakhan warned Libyan officials of the bombing before it took place. But as the vision unfolded, it was clear the war was a domestic war against the budding Nation of Islam, Black people and an assault on Black youth under the guise of a war on drugs and gangs.
While the California gang database is an important example of this assault on Black youth, the federal government recently announced targeting of several cities, Attorney General William Barr has warned communities who don’t respect police could find themselves without protection and the president has recommended being less gentle during arrests of suspects.
“I have been among you a long time, and I have not failed in warning you of what the government of the United States of America has been planning against Black people generally, but Black youth, in particular, and the Nation of Islam,” said the Minister in a special November, 2017 message directed to President Trump from the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.
“We’re at the end of it now: the plan is genocide and to kill you all. I’m going to drop it in the president’s lap, because he is the last one,” said Min. Farrakhan.
“We went from a small prison population, and the Clinton crime bill was directly against Black people. … Once we are called a ‘felon,’ they knew we couldn’t vote anymore. They were killing us at the voting booth by putting us in prison—and it all was a plot,” he continued.
“Mr. Trump: The consequences of America’s evils over time have fallen in your lap. … And they know they have a genocidal plot against all Black America … . Now, I have delivered a message, and a warning, Mr. Trump; because I don’t have an armada—I come to you, no army, no navy. These brothers that are around me, they don’t carry any weapons. We are forbidden to carry weapons; we are forbidden to store weapons in our home. So if you want to kill us, we are here: I’m not running from you, I’m running to you.”