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Nassau’s gang database relies on vague accusations gathered unlawfully, advocates say

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman and police officials announcing a new police program
Charles Lane
Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman and police officials announcing a new police program

A list of suspected gang members managed by the Nassau County Police Department includes people with little to no explanation or vague justifications, according to a report released Tuesday by a civil rights group.

The LatinoJustice report, which was shared with WSHU and Gothamist, finds that half of the 1,700 people in the gang database have no criminal history, and nearly a quarter of people were on the list without a clear rationale.

LatinoJustice obtained a redacted version of the list from the Freeport Police Department through a public records request.

Advocates warn that having your name on such a list could have a reverberating effect on the individuals, leading to deportation and less lenient sentences in the event of a future arrest.

“This is a practice of criminalizing Latinos and African Americans for their appearance, who they associate with, and where they live,” said Meena Roldán Oberdick, a lawyer at LatinoJustice who authored the report. “There's no other way to describe this other than racial profiling.”

Officials from the database's three main contributing departments — the Nassau County Police Department, along with the police departments for Hempstead and Freeport — did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Nassau County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement that the office does not use the database to guide their prosecution strategy, nor does it manage the list.

“We do not use them for making final determinations in our prosecutions. We must rely on the verified facts and circumstances of individual cases,” said Brendan Brosh, the office’s spokesperson.

In public meetings with lawmakers last November, Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder touted intelligence-led policing, saying that gang violence in the county is down, but is shifting more toward burglarizing cars.

“We rely very heavily on intelligence-led policing and we couple that with our community oriented policing,” Ryder said.

The redacted list was last updated in mid-2020 and contains the names of people suspected of being involved in gang activity, along with their birth year, race and ethnicity, city of residency, suspected gang affiliation and employment, and a column for police remarks. Police use these lists to track suspected gang members, but advocates say being on the list has far reaching consequences.

“It is certain that this information lands on the desk of immigration judges,” Oberdick said.

Many of the police remarks in the database are long, containing arrest logs and references to Nassau County Police Department gang intelligence reports. A quarter offer no explanation for why the individual is included on the list. Several officer notes cited someone attending a barbeque or hanging out in a known gang location as justification for being on the list.

The Nassau County Police Department has been reluctant to release statistics of its crime fighting tactics. The data the department has so far offeredshows that Black and Latino people are stopped, searched and ticketed more frequently than white people.

Ryder told lawmakers in November that the disproportionate stops of Black and Latino people are because of non-Nassau County residents coming to the county’s malls to commit crime. Justice reform advocates say that’s incorrect and Nassau Police have yet to offer statistics backing up their claims despite repeated requests.

According to LatinoJustice’s analysis, such stops and subsequent interviews are the core source of information for the database. The organization found hundreds of examples of unlawful stops where the only justification was suspected gang membership.

For instance, the group found one interview note stating that a 24-year-old Roosevelt man was questioned and added to the database for simply being in the vicinity of another person suspected of having gang affiliation: “[He] stated he was just hanging out for Memorial Day but could not name [the person] who walked off as officers turned on to the block.” The officer notes that the man was “released from the scene without incident.“

The suspected gang database also contained groups such as the Universal Zulu Nation, a hip-hop appreciation organization, and Five Percenters, a Black nationalist group rooted in the Nation of Islam, LatinoJustice found.

The Freeport gang database does not include any white supremacists groups and only three members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, according to the report. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 35 hate groups in New York and two — the Proud Boys and AltertAmerica.News — with chapters on Long Island.

Gang databases around the country have attractedsimilar criticism for many of the same complaints LatinoJustice’s report finds. Suffolk County officials have defended such lists as essential in preventing gang violence.

David Pyrooz, who studies gangs at the University of Colorado, said there’s very little evidence to suggest that gang databases prevent crime and the lists haven’t demonstrated that police use them to proactively thwart brewing gang wars or target nonpunitive services toward potential gang members.

However, gang databases can measure trends Pyrooz said.

“Those lists are useful to be able to determine if gang violence is getting worse? Is it getting better? Is gang activity increasing? Is it decreasing?” he said.

Pyrooz added that having such a list also gives police departments at least some focus.

“While I recognize that there's plenty of speculation involved with identifying the people who are listed in them,” Pyrooz said. “Without them they're going to be left to their own devices to behave perhaps even more indiscriminately.”

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.