Austin (KXAN) – Chris Ward travels the state debating legislative priorities affecting the motorcycle community and keeps running into bikers who claim they have been wrongfully listed on the Texas gang database.
Ward, who goes by the pseudonym “Clutch” and is the legislative spokesman for the biker advocacy group Texas Council of Clubs and Independents, said he heard from a 65-year-old priest on the gang’s database, a 50-year-old preacher from New York. that and another person who was unknowingly entered into the database after attending a biker’s funeral.
According to Ward, all these people have in common that they ride bicycles and do not belong to criminal gangs. The Texas Gang Database is supposed to help law enforcement agencies share information about gangs and their members, but Ward says it erroneously includes non-criminal groups. The situation may change if the recently filed bill becomes law.
“It’s a wide network that brings together a lot of innocent people,” said Ward, who is also president of the Guardians motorcycle club. “We want to make sure that this tool they use is well defined.”
Once a person is included in the gang’s database, it can affect their ability to carry weapons, travel, and obtain custody of their children, Ward said. He added that hiring a lawyer to remove from the database could cost thousands, and a person could be added without arrest.
Database issues reach legislators
State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, sought to reform the gang database. A bill she filed in 2021 to revise the database’s rules failed. This year, she re-submitted a similar bill. Gonzalez said she hopes her bill will gain more support after a 2022 state audit revealed a host of problems with the database.
That audit, which was initiated by a 2021 budget rider with support from Gonzalez, found that thousands of entries in the gang database weren’t checked by the deadline, and many records didn’t have enough information to determine when they were last checked.
“We’ve been hearing for a long time that some changes need to be made to the Texas gang database,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone agrees that this is a tool for law enforcement, but this tool just needs to be sharpened or just reworked a bit so that it doesn’t have unintended consequences.”
In recent years, state leaders have made crime a top priority. Gov. Greg Abbott accused multinational gangs of bringing drugs such as fentanyl into the state. In September, Abbott issued an executive order classifying Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and directing the Texas Department of Public Safety to “identify, arrest, and disrupt gangs in Texas that support these foreign terrorist organizations’ drug and human smuggling operations.” ”
State law enforcement estimated that there were over 100,000 gang members in Texas in 2018, according to the “Texas Gang Threat Assessment” prepared by DPS that same year. The gang threat rankings in the report included one biker group, “Bandidos OMG”, at the second level of the rankings.
The DPS maintains a gang database, but law enforcement across the state enters the records and uses them. The system was created in 2000. As of mid-2021, the database had more than 71,600 entries linked to more than 10,800 gangs, according to state audit data.
Notice and removal
Gonzalez’s bill requires departments to notify people within 60 days that they have been placed on the gang database. The notice must include an explanation of how to make a dispute. Departments will also be required to post this information on their websites.
The bill would prevent database information from being used to determine work eligibility, restrict any Texas or U.S. constitutional rights, or restrict the ability to obtain any federal or state license, permit, or benefit.
If her bill passes, the state auditor will conduct an annual review of the database, and the relevance of information older than 10 years will need to be confirmed or deleted. The audit would need to include a racial and demographic analysis of the people in the database and show if they have been included for more than five or ten years, according to the bill.
When law enforcement is notified that a person may be incorrectly included in the database, the agency will need to review the information to see if it violates the law and if there is a good reason to show that the entry is valid under the bill. If the information used to place a person in the database is invalid or violates the law, the agency will be required to destroy the records and notify the person requesting the verification, Gonzalez’s bill says.
The proposed law also establishes new time limits and rules for requesting and conducting judicial review of a person’s inclusion in the database, and persons can be removed by refusing gang membership.
Gonzalez’s bill is similar to the one she filed in 2021. According to legislative documents, this bill was passed by the House of Representatives, but was stopped in the Senate.
Representatives of the two largest police unions in the state – Texas Municipal Police Association and United Law Enforcement Associations of Texas – Registered against Gonzalez’s bill but did not testify at an April 2021 House Homeland and Public Safety Committee hearing.
Jennifer Szymanski, director of public relations for CLEAT, said her organization “opposes the elimination of this tool or any other tool that helps in various types of criminal investigations.”
Gonzalez said she supports continued use of the database and law enforcement efforts.
“We are not trying to pass a bill to get rid of the database. We’re trying to pass legislation that says we need an accurate, fair, and fair database,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said the results of a 2022 government audit of the gang database could support her bill by showing the need to revise its rules.
State audit revealed problems
The auditors found that more than 5,000 records were uploaded to the gang’s database without the required information, and 1,000 records had not been verified in the past five years, a federal requirement.
Database information is supplied by individual departments. According to the audit, counties with more than 100,000 people and cities with more than 50,000 people are required to send information.
The audit also found more than 5,700 records in the database that were missing information required by federal law, such as the name of the reviewer, the date the record was reviewed, and the reason the record was saved. Without this information, auditors say they cannot determine whether the records have been correctly verified.
Law enforcement agencies are required to check gang records for juveniles every two years and adults every five years. The screening includes reviewing court records and supporting documentation to determine if the person should remain on the database.
Following the audit, DPS told KXAN that it was identifying law enforcement agencies to begin “working one-on-one with them to address the identified deficiencies” and working with the vendor operating the system, Database Projects Group, to comply with legal requirements and resolve issues. from the audit.
Gonzalez said the law could be amended as it passes through the Capitol and KXAN will monitor and report on its progress.