Months after agreeing Florida's gang laws are too vague, Pinellas County law enforcement leaders are moving ahead with changes they hope will prevent people from being wrongly labeled gang members merely for being seen with relatives or friends who are.
The changes, approved May 23 by the Pinellas Police Standards Council, still need approval from some city governments and legal staffs for some agencies. But Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says his agency and others have already started implementing the policies. Among them:
• People who believe they are wrongly listed as gang members or associates can appeal to have their names removed from lists. State law offers no such relief.
• Time frames are set for names to be removed from lists. State law sets no time limits.
• Law enforcement must notify parents or legal guardians of children listed as gang members or associates.
• All intelligence on local gangs, members and associates kept by Pinellas law enforcement agencies will be compiled into a centralized database maintained by the Sheriff's Office.
"It makes some really major changes to how we're operating here," Gualtieri said. "I hope it's a model for others to follow."
The changes have the support of every police agency in Pinellas County, as well as the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, Gualtieri said.
The Police Standards Council first discussed the changes in October after a Tampa Bay Times story about Justin Wiley, a 23-year-old man with no criminal record who was barred from returning to the Largo public housing complex where his son and grandmother live, then was arrested for being there — all because the Sheriff's Office had listed him as a gang member.
Wiley says he is not a gang member. He got on a list because he was seen hanging out with other people listed by the Sheriff's Office as gang members. Wiley says they are people he's known since childhood.
Florida law permits authorities to compile lists of gang members and associates, and gives 11 criteria for gang membership. If someone meets one criterion, state law labels them a gang associate. Meet two, he's a gang member.
Among the criteria: Dressing like a gang member, using hand signals associated with a gang, being seen with gang members, having a gang tattoo. The law does not require someone to have a criminal record to be listed as a gang member. People identified as gang members face closer scrutiny from law enforcement and, if arrested, potentially tougher prosecution.
Some police chiefs felt uncomfortable making changes they felt should be made on the state level, according to St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon. Local officials have not asked legislators to make changes, though, noting they felt it unlikely legislation that could be perceived as "soft on gangs" would pass.
"As we talked about it, it was unfair for a kid to get labeled a gang member, gang associate, and not even be convicted of a crime," Harmon said.
It will still be possible under the new policies for someone to be listed as a gang member without a conviction, but law enforcement will need documented "criminal association" between that person and a gang member, such as if he's been seen dealing drugs with a gang member.
Wiley, the man whose story prompted the changes, reacted to them with a mixture of optimism and skepticism. The mug shot from his 2011 trespass after warning arrest is still on the Internet. (The State Attorney's Office dropped the charge.) He thinks it still gives him trouble as he seeks a job. He is still listed by the Sheriff's Office as a gang member, something Gualtieri says will change when the new countywide database is created, and each name added to it will be reviewed.
"It should help," Wiley said of the changes. "I just hope they really do what they're saying they're going to do."
Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.