In August 2016, an administrator for Washington, D.C.’s, Metropolitan Police Department emailed a link to a news article to a colleague in the department’s Criminal Intelligence Branch. The article was abou
t an audit of California’s statewide database of gang members; the database, the audit found, was riddled with civil rights violations and errors, including 42 instances in which the supposed gang member’s age when they were added was less than 1 year old. The article “raised a lot of interesting issues,” the administrator said.
The link was eventually forwarded to Daniel Hall, the intelligence branch’s top civilian analyst. Hall, a main developer of the MPD’s own gang database, laughed off the administrator’s concerns. “See this is why I built the gang database!! Im the savior of this unit!” he emailed a colleague. “As long as you don’t have any one year olds in there,” the colleague replied, adding a winking face emoticon.
“Haha no I created it after I went through all the records,” Hall said. “Im the reallllllll deallllll.”
Yet the gang database Hall helped build suffered from many of the same deficiencies as the California database. A spreadsheet of the MPD database shared internally the next month included a supposed gang member who was less than 1 year old, as well as 2, 3, 5, and 6-year-olds. The 2,575 names in the spreadsheet also included children as young as 14.
The email chain and spreadsheet are part of a trove of over 70,000 emails and their attachments, sent and received by Hall between 2009 and 2017 and stolen from the MPD as part of a hack by a ransomware group known as Babuk, which claimed to have downloaded 250 gigabytes of data in total. The documents were published last month by Distributed Denial of Secrets, the transparency collective behind BlueLeaks and other recent high-profile document dumps, and made searchable by the Lucy Parsons Labs, a Chicago-based collaborative. The MPD acknowledged an “unauthorized access incident” in late April, and in mid-May, the department sought public help in identifying a man for his “reposting of MPD’s illegally accessed data on social media.” Neither the MPD nor Hall responded to The Intercept’s list of questions.
Other documents from the trove, reviewed by The Intercept, show how the MPD identifies supposed gang members by using hazy criteria typical of other gang databases in the United States and how the department pushes officers to frequently add names to the database. The emails also reveal that the MPD shares information from the database — including full spreadsheets of its contents — with outside agencies and larger regional gang databases and that the department uses it to inform its aggressive policing initiatives.
Gang databases across the country have come under heavy scrutiny in recent years amid revelations of widespread errors, racial profiling, the inclusion of children, their use in immigration enforcement, and other civil rights violations. Police departments, meanwhile, have been tight-lipped about how they develop and use gang databases, refusing to inform people if they’re included, let alone how they were added or how they might appeal their inclusion.
The MPD emails provide one of the least-filtered and most in-depth pictures yet of a local gang database’s operations and flaws — and how it fuels the surveillance, and sometimes deadly policing, of poor Black and Latino communities.
In a statement emailed to The Intercept, the Stop Police Terror Project DC, an organization that advocates for alternatives to policing, pointed to the case of Deon Kay, an 18-year-old whom an MPD officer chased down and fatally shot in September 2020 as he threw away a gun he was carrying. Part of the MPD’s justification for the pursuit was that Kay was a “validated gang member.”
“It’s clear that the entire goal of the gang database is to make it easier to harass and arrest Black people in D.C.,” the group said.