Skip to main content

San Diego Nonprofit Prepares To Fight For People Listed In Gang Database

Terry Spears leaves his barbershop, Custom Cuts, in National City, April 26, ...

Photo by Claire Trageser

Above: Terry Spears leaves his barbershop, Custom Cuts, in National City, April 26, 2017.

Right now, you could be listed in the state's gang database and not even know it. But a new state law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018 requiring law enforcement to inform everyone who is added to the database after that date.

Right now, you could be listed in the state's gang database and not even know it. But a new state law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018 requiring law enforcement to inform everyone who is added to the database after that date.

The law, which was written by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, also gives people in the database, called CalGang, a right to appeal their gang designations. For that reason, the San Diego nonprofit Pillars of the Community is preparing a legal team to help people who believe they have been mistakenly identified as gang members.

One of them is Terry Spears, who grew up in Southeast San Diego and went to school to train as a barber. He said he has never been in a gang, but has family members or friends who are. That is enough to earn him a spot in CalGang.

"They said you get documented if you get contacted more than five times with gang members," he said.

A law has long been on the books in California that says people who associate with known gang members, are seen in a gang neighborhood or wear gang-related clothing can be classified as gang members. In 1997 those classifications were digitized into the CalGang database.

Spears is getting ready for the Sunday grand opening of his barber shop, Custom Cuts in National City, but still struggles with the challenges his gang designation has brought. For instance, he said he has had problems when stopped by the police.

"One time they took my car cause I'm documented, so it messed up my whole work, because they took my car for two weeks," he said.

Now, Pillars of the Community has set him up with a lawyer, Danielle Iredale, who is volunteering her services pro bono to help 11 clients fight their listings in CalGang.

Photo caption: Terry Spears gives a haircut at his barbershop, Custom Cuts in National City,...

Photo by Claire Trageser

Terry Spears gives a haircut at his barbershop, Custom Cuts in National City, April 26, 2017.

"When you're on this list that's previously secret, a police officer could look it up and then use that to hold you up, to conduct a search that would likely later hold up in court because they can use your gang documentation as probable cause," she said.

Spokespeople for the California District Attorneys Association and California State Sheriffs’ Association, who opposed the new law, did not return requests for comment. But Sean Hoffman with the California District Attorneys Association told the news organization Reveal the law's notification requirement would be too burdensome for law enforcement and would be "like letting suspects view evidence being collected against them before we decide to file charges."

But Iredale pointed to statistics that show 85 percent of people in the database are Latino or black and said CalGang unfairly targets poor people and people of color.

"People are on this list who do not deserve to be on the list," she said. "They're on it because of where they grew up, who their family is, for ridiculous things."

She is planning to appeal the gang designations for her clients, which includes asking the California Department of Justice to show documentation for why those people are considered gang members. Then she can contest the designations with local law enforcement, and if that does not work, court.

"We get to take it out of this agency that's been able to make these decisions based on how they feel that day, and you get to appeal that to a judge," she said.

She just started the process for Spears, but is hopeful she can get him off the database so he can go on with his life.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.