By Joshua Sharpe | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | February 5, 2020

The GBI on Wednesday announced the roll-out of its long-anticipated statewide gang database, a tool called necessary by Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration and a cause for concern by critics who warn it could be misused.

Contents of the Georgia Criminal Street Gang Database will be visible only to certain GBI agents and police officers. It’s part of Kemp and GBI Director Vic Reynolds’ push to crackdown on gangs across the state. Officials say the database is meant to give authorities an easy and effective way to share information while tracking and investigating gangs across jurisdictional lines. Through a pilot program involving the GBI and Atlanta-area police departments, the database already has logged 100 gangs and the names of 17,000 people believed to be gang members or gang associates, the GBI said. Georgia’s Department of Community Supervision and prison system helped with the database.

“Gangs don’t abide by city or county boundaries,” Reynolds said. “With this statewide database operational, law enforcement across jurisdictional lines will be able to work together more efficiently and effectively to tie cases together to make Georgia safer.”

Criminal justice reform and civil rights advocates fear the database could violate the rights of the people on the list.

“Law enforcement can put anyone on the list for reasons like dressing a certain way, having tattoos or just walking down the street at the wrong moment,” said ACLU of Georgia staff attorney Kosha Tucker. “The overly broad nature of the database makes it a prime tool for racial profiling. Communities of color should not have to live in fear that at any given moment, their child or family member could be added to this database and never told or given an opportunity to dispute or challenge the designation.”

To land on the list of gang members and associates, a person must have been convicted of violating the state gang law or meet at least two of the other requirements, state policy states. Criteria include admitting gang affiliation; having gang tattoos; displaying gang signs personally or in graffiti; wearing clothing, colors, jewelry and/or bandannas believed to be “gang dress;” possessing or being referenced in gang documents; being seen with gang members; being identified by evidence online, being identified by a reliable source or being arrested on a gang crime charge or being suspected of a gang crime.

The policy says people who are on the list will be removed after five years if there is no cause to keep them on for another five years.

Jaret Usher, the head of the GBI Gang Task Force, said the safeguards built into the policy will work to prevent anyone’s rights from being violated. She said if any agency is found to have misused the database, it will be suspension or banned from using the tool. Usher also noted that the information in the database won’t itself be used to prosecute crimes, and the information will be vetted regularly.

To make sure the tool doesn’t encroach on privacy and constitutional rights, the GBI will train all authorized users and make them sign contracts, according to an internal directive. The document pledges periodic audits and and the appointment of a liaison responsible for the integrity of the information in the database and the ways it’s used.

Kemp has repeatedly said nearly every county in Georgia is touched by gang crime. Last week, he announced that he was pushing legislation that could lead to drastically tougher sentences for people convicted in gang cases. The bill is named the Nicholas Sheffey Act, in memory of an 11-year-old Chamblee boy who died in a 2010 drive-by shooting. His mother, Deborah Rider, has praised Kemp’s anti-gang efforts.

Critics have questioned whether gang-related issues in Georgia are as widespread as Kemp’s office suggests. Since 2011, violent crime is down 13 percent in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. But the GBI cites an early 2019 survey of more than 500 police and sheriff’s offices around the state, when most agencies said their biggest frustration was gangs. Topping the list were Ghostface Gangsters, Gangster Disciples, Bloods and Crips.

Local, state and federal officials from all over Georgia told lawmakers last week that gang crime is plaguing their communities.

Some who agree that much work must be done to combat gangs want to see more focus on preventing young people from joining gangs.

Jamie Pruitt, 35, was shot in the chest in 2014 while trying to break up a gang fight near Stone Mountain. The shooting damaged his pancreas, stomach, kidney and left him with intense PTSD and depression, he said. Only recently has he recovered enough to start working again.

“It’s horrible what gangs are doing to innocent people,” Pruitt said. “Random shootings. Killing innocent bystanders.”

At the same time, he grew up in a neighborhood where a lot of his peers were drawn to gangs. He looks at gang members and thinks he could’ve ended up like them if his life had gone a bit differently. He said he knows some of them must go to prison for what they’ve done, but he thinks many young people can be swayed from joining gangs in the first place enough people and organizations are working to help them find a better life.

“To just throw them in a cage and say this is a punishment — I don’t feel like that’s sufficient,” Pruitt said. “Sometimes you’ve got to find the root of the problem.”

Speaking last week, Kemp said it will take community organizations, churches and families to step up and prevent people from joining gangs.

“Criminal street gangs are plaguing neighborhoods across Georgia,” he said. “This database will serve as a vital tool for law enforcement to hold violent criminals accountable and keep Georgia families safe.”