The Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department’s gang database almost tripled in size over eight years, and nearly nine out of 10 entries with a race listed are Black people, who make up 46 percent of D.C.’s population, according to internal records obtained by The Intercept.
The records also include a breakdown of gang database entries by ZIP code, a partially redacted spreadsheet of the database, and an internal MPD slideshow. The documents and data show that the gang database contains increasing proportions of children and people with tenuous ties to groups the MPD has labeled as gangs.
The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia received the records in two batches in response to a Freedom of Information Act request in July about the gang database. The PDS shared its findings with Defund MPD, a coalition of D.C. organizations formed during the 2020 police brutality protests, which shared the records with The Intercept.
“MPD’s own data confirms what community members have known and felt for years: that gang policing in this city discriminatorily targets Black and brown D.C. residents,” said Dinesh McCoy, staff attorney at Just Futures Law, an immigrant rights law firm and member of the Defund MPD coalition.
Like many police departments, the MPD maintains an opaque list of suspected gang members, keeping the public in the dark about whom officers add to it. Details about the MPD’s gang tracking efforts first became public last summer, after the transparency collective Distributed Denial of Secrets published internal MPD Criminal Intelligence Branch documents that had been hacked by a ransomware group known as Babuk.
In June, The Intercept published an article based on those documents, revealing that the MPD’s database of supposed gang members is riddled with errors, employs nebulous criteria, and is used to justify aggressive policing of Black communities. The MPD did not respond to The Intercept’s emailed questions in June or for this article.
Reporting on the gang database comes amid a renewed push for police reform and accountability in D.C. The D.C. Council passed the district’s 2022 budget with an amendment phasing out the MPD’s school resource officer program and, citing The Intercept’s reporting, banning the MPD from using intelligence from those school cops to add students to the city’s gang database. Then, in November, D.C.’s Police Reform Commission announced that it will reconvene to evaluate MPD reform efforts, citing a need for more urgent progress and a host of recent MPD controversies, including the gang database revelations.
And on Monday, D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen, chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, sent a letter to MPD Chief Robert Contee with a list of questions about the gang database. The letter cites The Intercept’s reporting and includes requests for demographic breakdowns of the database’s entries, lists of law enforcement agencies that have used information from it, and information about gang database policies and practices.
Allen said he supports police efforts to gather intelligence “on the small number of people who are most likely to commit harm,” but noted that, without proper guardrails, gang databases can raise privacy and racial equity concerns. “Government shouldn’t be in the business of maintaining ballooning, vague, secretive lists of almost exclusively Black boys and men that can quickly lead to profiling and overpolicing.”