The elimination of cash bail, the demonization of policing, and the decriminalization of theft have led to soaring crime across the United States. In response, even some big-city Democrats have backed off their extravagant promises to “reimagine” criminal justice as a noncoercive form of human services, staffed by social workers and culminating in talk of restorative justice instead of prison sentences. National polling indicates that mainstream Democratic voters are turning away from a party that they see as too soft on crime.
As a measure of the shift, New Yorkers, following a dizzying 40 percent rise in murders in 2020, elected as mayor a former NYPD captain and self-described moderate, Eric Adams, with hopes that he will restore public order. London Breed, mayor of crime-ravaged San Francisco, recently came out as a tough-on-crime crusader; and Jim Kenney, Philadelphia’s mayor, has tentatively admitted that his city, which just broke its own murder record, has a “gun crisis.”
Yet even as some Democrats seem ready to embrace centrism, at least in their public statements, the party’s far Left is redoubling its “abolitionist” efforts to end incarceration, dismantle police departments, and reengineer society’s approach to crime and punishment. And in cities across the country, radical members of local legislatures, activist groups, and the defense bar have opened a new front in the war on order: they are demanding that police departments end the practice of maintaining lists of gang members in databases, which they claim are unconstitutional, stigmatizing, and racist.
Critical scrutiny of gang-member databases—which keep track of the names, turf, “colors,” and affiliates of violent criminal organizations—began in earnest in 2017, after the election of Donald Trump, when the practice of local law-enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities was denounced as authoritarian. The “resist” movement demanded that local government stop supporting detention and removal proceedings of illegal aliens, and police-abolition activists pushed to broaden the concern about federal databases to include any lists kept by local law enforcement.
Nonprofit news organizations such as ProPublica, the Intercept, and the Marshall Project—all bankrolled by left-leaning foundations supportive generally of the decarceration movement—commenced seemingly simultaneous investigations of gang databases in the months leading up to and following Trump’s election. At the same time, criminal-justice-reform advocates in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City amped up pressure on local police departments to end their collection of information on gang members.
“The gang database is not a crime-fighting tool,” said Victor Dempsey, a community organizer with the Legal Aid Society, at a 2019 New York City Hall rally demanding its abolition. “It is a tool of mass criminalization.” The Legal Aid Society serves as an outsourced public defender’s office, providing constitutionally mandated indigent defense to New Yorkers, for which it receives hundreds of millions of tax dollars. Dempsey, a former gang member who spent time in prison for robbery, is effectively a public employee whose job is to inveigh against city policy.
The idea that keeping track of the members of criminal enterprises leads to “mass criminalization” is a cherished principle of the abolitionist Left, which is eager both to assert that gangs are the construct of a moral panic and to embrace their supposedly pro-social potential. The Grassroots Advocates for Neighborhood Groups & Solutions (G.A.N.G.S. Coalition) is a leading and oft-cited proponent of new legislation to eliminate, erase, and forbid the collation of gang-membership data by any New York City agency.
According to G.A.N.G.S., antigang policing developed after “young Black and Latinx people formed street organizations to build up their community while protecting themselves against police violence.” The myth of street gangs as mutual aid groups functioning as part of civil society is central to the Left’s discourse on the subject. Antisocial gang behavior, according to G.A.N.G.S., is an unfortunate response to “suppression tactics both by local police departments and the federal government” because of which “some groups engaged in destructive behaviors.” In reality, of course, street gangs are defined by destructive behavior. At least half of all murders in New York City are gang-related, and gang violence routinely takes the form of indiscriminate shootings on the street or at parties, often wounding or killing innocent bystanders.
A city council hearing in 2018 made headlines when then–chief of detectives (and later NYPD commissioner) Dermot Shea revealed that blacks and Latinos made up 98.5 percent of the 18,000 individuals in the gang database, a figure seemingly confirming advocate suspicions that the database is racist. “Instead of accepting that certain racial groups are more prone to gang activity,” argues a broad coalition of criminal- justice-reform organizations, “the database’s racial bias may simply reflect where the NYPD chooses to prioritize law enforcement.” This idea, that the police look for crime guided by their own prejudices, is contradicted by decades of data on who uses guns in New York City—the demographic breakdown aligns almost exactly with the racial composition of the gang database.
Undismayed by broad public support for law and order, progressive advocates have methodically worked to dismantle the tools of law enforcement. From limiting stop-and-frisk to the decriminalization of minor offenses to the elimination of pretrial detention, they have made significant strides toward ensuring that the criminal element is permitted to roam the streets. Their latest offensive—to end police surveillance of criminal organizations that inflict mayhem on cities—must be turned back.