Police don’t add to gang database

State says departments lack staff to help

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / June 15, 2010

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Eighteen months after the Patrick administration planned to launch a computer database that would identify street-gang members across the state, not a single local police department has contributed information to the $1.2 million federally funded intelligence system, according to a high-ranking public safety official.

The reason, said John A. Grossman, the undersecretary of forensic science and technology, is simple: Cash-strapped police departments are so short-handed that they cannot spare officers to verify their gang data and enter it on computers.

“We hoped that the communities that were struggling with gangs would contribute,’’ Grossman said in an interview. “Everybody thinks it’s a good idea. But you need to get data in.’’

Although Lowell police confirmed that officers do not have time to enter data, other departments gave different reasons for not participating in MassGangs, the database that is supposed to contain detailed information about gang members, ranging from their criminal history to their tattoos.

In Boston, where several gang-related murders and shootings of teenagers have made headlines in recent weeks, the Police Department has expressed concern about the security of the database.

Other police departments, meanwhile, said they were barely aware the program existed and would almost certainly have assigned staff to provide the intelligence if they knew about it.

“I think it might be a communication gap,’’ said Brockton Police Chief William K. Conlon.

Based on such comments, Grossman said the administra tion needs to do a better job of publicizing the program, but he believes the problem is really scarce police resources.

“It’s easy to say that they’re ready to contribute,’’ he said. “It’s more complicated to actually do it.’’

So far, said Grossman, only two agencies have provided data on people identified as gang members: the state Department of Correction and the State Police.

The Correction Department has provided records on about 6,000 gang members who have been in prison, and the State Police on about 2,000 gang members identified by investigators. Six county sheriff’s departments are also poised to contribute data on inmates, he said.

Grossman said the prisons and State Police already had sophisticated databases on gangs, so it was relatively easy to hook up with MassGangs.

But it has proved harder for local police departments, he said. Those departments must assign officers to make sure the intelligence meets reliability standards required by federal regulations and to enter it onto a computer program provided by the state.

“We can’t, sitting here at EOPSS, make people use [the database] or second-guess the judgments of the chiefs and supervisors about their priorities,’’ Grossman said, referring to the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. “Obviously, we had hopes it was going to be used more frequently than it is now. But lots of things have changed with the economy in the last two or three years.’’

Governor Deval Patrick announced MassGangs in May 2008, the same time he appointed Curtis M. Wood executive director of the Criminal History Systems Board. The board, which is part of the public safety office, oversees the database.

Grossman said Patrick’s predecessor, Governor Mitt Romney, applied for the federal grant, and Patrick inherited the project and thought it was a good idea. No state money is being used in the system.

New Jersey obtained a federal grant to start a similar program, he added.

Described on the state’s website as a “unified intelligence system,’’ MassGangs is supposed to help police officers track gang members who are often mobile and commit crimes in more than one community.

Funded with a grant from the US Department of Justice, the system is supposed to let investigators share gang-related information in real time, adding new data to a gang member’s history as soon as it becomes available.

In a Globe interview in November 2008, Wood said the system would also provide investigators with hand-held devices and facial recognition software to gather and record information.

Police officers who encountered a suspect, he said, would fill out a form that assigns a point value to gang-related criteria across 17 categories, including “self-admission’’ (five points); “known group tattoo/ marking’’ (eight points); and “information from reliable/confidential informant’’ (five points). A total score of 10 or more points would lead to an individual being classified as a gang member.

Individuals who reached the 10-point threshold would be maintained in the database for 60 months, Wood told the Globe. The information would then be purged unless it was updated to reflect continued gang association or activity, prompting the state to reset retention to 60 months again. Federal regulations prohibit such data from being stored permanently.

The Lowell Police Department has not participated, largely because vetting the data, entering it, and monitoring it for continued gang activity would be a lot of work for busy officers, said Sergeant Thomas Lombard, a crime analyst for the department.

“We don’t, basically, have the time to do it,’’ he said.

The Boston Police Department is not participating, said a spokesman, Officer James Kenneally, because of security concerns. Although only law enforcement agencies are supposed to be able to see it, said Kenneally, investigators are worried about “who’s maintaining and updating the intelligence, who would be privy to it, and what security measures would be taken’’ to keep the information strictly in the hands of police.

Nonetheless, he said his department believes in sharing intelligence with other police forces, particularly through the department’s Boston Regional Intelligence Center.

Officials at several police departments said they were barely aware of MassGangs and would gladly have assigned officers to funnel data to the intelligence system.

Brookline Police Chief Daniel C. O’Leary — who heads the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs, a group comprising the heads of the 35 biggest departments — said he vaguely recalled hearing something about the database but “it hasn’t been on our radar screen.’’

John Reynolds, a civilian who analyzes crime data for the Lawrence police, said that the department heard something vague about the program but that “I can’t offer you any informed opinion about why this initiative didn’t take off.’’

Saltzman can be reached at

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