Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea: Criminal Group Database is Vital Tool to Controlling Gang Violence

June 13, 2018

Op-Ed Published in the Wednesday, June 13, 2018, print issue of the New York Daily News

Crime and violence in New York City have declined dramatically over the past quarter century, and tracking and countering criminal groups has been essential to keeping it low.

The NYPD has identified about 500 active criminal street-gang groups. They commit robberies and deal drugs, but they also do credit card fraud, check-forging schemes, identity theft, phone scams and organized retail theft. Gangs are involved in human trafficking, including the prostitution of underage girls.

The common denominator is gun violence, whether from business disputes or personal vendettas. A callous indifference to human life is typical in these disputes, whether toward rival gang members or innocent bystanders caught in crossfire. Approximately 50% of the shootings in New York last year, for which perpetrators were identified, were gang-related, and other unsolved shootings may be gang-related as well.

The Criminal Group Database is a necessary tool to combat criminal organizations. When violence erupts between two groups, and retaliatory shootings are likely, it's important to know who might retaliate and who is likely to be targeted, so we can defuse the situation and stop the killing. Knowing criminal group membership also helps guide the Police Department's efforts through programs like Ceasefire to wean young men away from gang life, by offering genuine alternatives, before it's too late.

The NYPD is always refining its investigative efforts, and the Criminal Group Database is no exception. Since 2014, accuracy and precision of the database has been improved by tighter standards for entry. People entered in the database today either have identified themselves as gang members to a member of the department or on social media; been named as gang members by two reliable independent sources, or shown a consistent and repeated pattern of gang involvement through their affiliations and their use of colors, signs, tattoos and other indicators. Only gang detectives or intelligence officers can recommend entries to the database, and a supervisor must approve the entry.

The NYPD routinely expunges names from the database to eliminate people who are no longer affiliated with these groups, through mandated reviews of individuals every three years and at important milestone moments. A database that contained 34,000 names five years ago has been cut almost in half to about 17,500.

Current subjects in the database have an average of 11 prior arrests, almost half for felony crimes. They are not as young as some believe, either. Only 8.3% were entered before their 18th birthday and less than 2.5% are currently under 18. Their average age is 27.

Lastly, inclusion in the database is not considered proof of any crime or grounds for any arrest or other punitive action. Nor is the information in the database available outside the NYPD. Speculations that mere inclusion in the database will be a barrier to employment or housing, or lead to deportation, are baseless.

Working with the leads in the database, the NYPD builds cases against criminal gang members. Gang arrests are preceded by meticulous investigations, and the NYPD establishes separate probable cause for each arrest made. The vast majority of NYPD gang arrests are authorized by prior grand jury indictments. These arrests were a major reason why, over the past two years, shootings fell to the lowest level on record — even as precision policing has resulted in the lowest number of overall arrests in 25 years.

Despite this success, criminal groups continue to threaten public safety and quality of life in some New York City neighborhoods. The NYPD must remain vigilant in the face of this threat, and the database is a vital tool for tracking, evaluating, monitoring and investigating these dangerous criminal groups and their members.

Supporting Material

Graphs showing shootings, number of arrests, and number of gang members before and after previous gang takedowns