Bill would combine national gang data

Police nationwide would be able to swap information about gang members, their crimes, cars and other information under a proposal by a Northern San Joaquin Valley lawmaker.

A state database already tracks gang members. But the national gang activity database proposed by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, would authorize a broader system connecting agencies across the country.

He said the system should increase the number of gang busts similar to those in Stockton earlier this year. Police invited the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to help in a joint investigation of drug operations and gangs, and they arrested about 50 people from January to July.

A second effort between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and San Joaquin County authorities brought in more than two dozen indictments in July related to suspected drug trafficking connected to the Nuestra Familia prison gang.

"Cooperation is really important," McNerney said. "So if we give (law enforcement) the tools to work together, they'll have the chance to be more successful -- including if we can get federal agencies to share information with local agencies and vice versa."

The legislation leaves details of how the database would work to the Department of Justice.

California's database, CalGang, flags names. When police enter a name, it shows whether the person has been identified as a gang member and, if so, by what agency. Officers can call the agency for specifics.

"It is only as good as the information put in and the agencies that participate," said Modesto Police Sgt. Rick Armendariz, who supervises the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force. "If Alabama and New Mexico are the only ones that enter information, it would not help us in the valley unless there is some connection with those areas, but if (more) local agencies put in information, the more information we will have to pull from."

Without knowing how the database would work, Armendariz said he couldn't determine how useful it would be but said access to federal information helps the task force.

Members of the task force, which include local, state and federal agencies, are deputized as federal agents and have access to federal information.

"I can say that the partnership we've maintained with local and federal agencies has been a tremendous asset, and I think that it would benefit other agencies as well," Armendariz said.

System could spur leads

Routinely running names through a federal database could create leads into criminal activ-ity or turn up suspects, said deputy Royjindar Singh, a spokesman for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.

"Maybe we run the name or driver's license of someone from New York and then ask ourselves, 'Why is this guy -- a known, active gang member -- in California?' So we call back to New York just to let them know, and then maybe they can say, 'He's a person of interest (in a criminal case) and we've been looking for him.' "

So-called people of interest -- not necessarily suspects but people police want to interview -- don't ordinarily show up in databases, Singh said. So a federal database could be one way to track them.

He said the database also could tip investigators to actions that might lead or be tied to criminal activity, such as gang members frequenting an out-of-state gun shop.

Felons are banned from buying guns, but documented gang members haven't necessarily been convicted of any crime. Authorities can identify gang members who meet two or more criteria on a list of possibilities including tattoos, clothing and who they associate with. Police and deputies in Stanislaus County have documented 4,000 gang members.

Amount of opposition unclear

The method generated initial criticism from civil liberties groups when authorities in California began documenting gang members in databases in the 1990s. But it is unclear whether widening the system would spark any opposition.

Fred Herman, chairman of the Stanislaus County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he had not received any position papers on the topic.

McNerney said he was inspired to write the legislation by a pair of ride-alongs through gang areas with Stockton police.

The legislation has received a warm reception from law enforcement agencies, said Andy Stone, McNerney's communications director.

The legislation also would allocate $50 million during the next five years to continue the FBI Safe Streets Program. The program pays for the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force and the Stockton Violent Crime Task Force.

The legislation was incorpo-rated last week into a larger bill known as the Gang Prevention, Intervention and Suppression Act.

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 599-8760.