Friday, November 24, 2017
Public safety

Pinellas law enforcement leaders say gang database guidelines need to be changed

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PINELLAS PARK — Justin Wiley probably wasn't the first person with a clean criminal record targeted by a Pinellas County law enforcement officer because he was labeled a gang member. But he might be one of the last.

Several members of the Pinellas Police Standards Council agreed Wednesday that local law enforcement agencies need to change how they collect and use gang intelligence. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri proposed several changes at Wednesday's council meeting, including requiring evidence of criminal activity before someone is labeled a gang member.

Wednesday's meeting was the first since a Sept. 16 Tampa Bay Times story about Wiley, a 22-year-old Largo man who was barred from returning to the neighborhood where his son and grandmother live, then was arrested for being in that neighborhood — all because he had been listed as a gang member.

Wiley says he isn't a gang member. The Sheriff's Office labeled him one because he was seen with other alleged gang members. Wiley says they are people he has known since childhood.

Wednesday's council discussion came the day after the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office dropped the misdemeanor trespass after warning charge against Wiley, who had pleaded not guilty and faced up to a year in jail.

Gualtieri said Wednesday that his agency had no indication of criminal activity by Wiley and that he'd void the trespass warning that one of his deputies gave Wiley in August 2011.

"I'm relieved," Wiley said Wednesday.

Gualtieri told the council Wednesday he thinks Florida's legal definitions of "gang member" and "gang associate" are too broad and subjective. St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon, Largo police Chief John Carroll, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge J. Thomas McGrady agreed.

"There are some bad people out there … but I don't want to see people caught in that net who shouldn't be," Gualtieri said. "Just because the state law allows it, doesn't mean we should do it."

State law lists 11 criteria for gang membership. If you meet one, you're a gang associate; if you meet two, you're a gang member. Among the criteria: being seen with gang members, dressing like a gang member, using a gang hand sign and having a gang tattoo.

Law enforcement agencies across Florida use the criteria to create databases of gang members and associates for intelligence purposes. Once arrested, gang members can face stronger prosecution and longer sentences. Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter did not return a call for comment Wednesday on whether her agency would consider changes as well.

Among the changes the council discussed Wednesday:

• One countywide database of gang members and associates, rather than each agency keeping its own database.

• Mandatory notification of parents of juveniles in gang databases.

• An appeal process for people who say they're wrongly listed as gang members.

Gulfport police Chief Robert Vincent disagreed about adding a criminal record requirement.

"If somebody is seen on several occasions talking to somebody else who is a documented gang member, then that person should be a documented gang associate," Vincent said. "That is somebody who deserves closer scrutiny by police."

Vincent agreed some changes are needed, as did most officials who spoke Wednesday. They cautioned that gang databases are needed, though.

"There are certified bad guys on these lists, and they ought to get enhanced sentences," said Carroll, the Largo police chief.

The State Attorney's Office uses the databases to compile "no contact" lists it gives alleged gang members in court, who are told to avoid everyone on the lists as a requirement of probation.

This sparked controversy this summer in Largo. The mother of one alleged gang member passed copies of a "no contact" list around, prompting complaints.

McCabe did not say his agency would stop handing out "no contact" lists, but he did acknowledge problems with them in small neighborhoods like Ridgecrest, where Wiley was arrested. The "no contact" list in the Ridgecrest area has more than 120 names.

"It's such a close-knit, geographically compact area, that if you don't hang around with that crowd, there's no crowd to hang out with," McCabe said. "And young people are going to hang around with somebody."

Gualtieri said the committee should meet in the next few months and will reach out to community leaders. Pastor Jerry Lee Booker of Largo's Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church attended Wednesday's meeting at Carroll's invitation.

"I do believe there is a communication breakdown between law enforcement and parents," said Booker. "We look forward to working with you all."

One person not impressed by Wednesday's talk was John Boyd, Justin Wiley's uncle, who led an August meeting of more than 50 Ridgecrest residents upset about the gang lists.

"I appreciate what they're doing, but I'm in no way disillusioned into thinking they have our best interests in mind," said Boyd, 40, of Clearwater. "It's just a step in the right direction."

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]

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