Beginning in the 1970’s, California police departments started a system of filling out 5- by 7-inch index cards, known as “field cards”, whenever the officer encountered a person suspected of having a gang affiliation. The cards included the person’s name, their “gang moniker”, gang affiliation and other identifying information. Back in those days, the cards were filed in cabinets. Cops still collect field cards but these days, the information is placed in a statewide database called CalGang.
With the passage of the STEP Act in 1988, prosecutors were able to add gang charges and enhances to charges where the conduct was alleged to be gang related. Upon the creation of the CalGang database, law enforcement and prosecutors had a new tool to quickly identify and prosecute gang-related crime. With CalGang, officers in the field are able to instantly determine whether an individual has been identified to have gang ties—no more digging through filing cabinets.
Not surprisingly, law enforcement and prosecutors are enthusiastic users of CalGang: Law enforcement feeds the database, sometimes with dubious information, and prosecutors use it at every opportunity. Today the database has grown to include more than 150,000 names and a recent state audit found that individuals as young as nine-years-old are included in the database. CalGang casts a wide net and sometimes individuals are included in the database simply for being in the wrong area.