Thursday, February 22, 2018
Opinion

Draw the crime-fighting line at guilt by association

It's probably fair to say the cops are at a disadvantage.

When it comes to fighting criminal gang activity, the odds are going to be in favor of those who are not inclined to play by the rules.

So it makes sense for law enforcement to use every reasonable tool available to track gangs. That includes compiling intelligence. That includes being diligent and proactive.

That should not, however, include guilt by association.

In a fascinating story in Sunday's Tampa Bay Times, reporter Will Hobson detailed how the Criminal Street Gang Prevention Act of 1996 has permitted law enforcement agencies to officially label someone as a gang "associate'' if they are spotted often enough in the company of gang members.

Do comprehensive gangs lists have merit? Perhaps, but the criteria being used to compile these lists is far too vague.

And after Hobson's story, local law enforcement heads seem to agree.

"There is potential,'' said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, "for a slippery slope.''

Gualtieri said he spoke Monday with State Attorney Bernie McCabe and St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon and agreed to address the issue with other local law enforcement agencies at the Oct. 10 meeting of the Pinellas Police Standards Council.

"If changes are warranted, I'll be in favor of amending'' procedures, Gualtieri said.

Keeping track of gang members is not the problem. The issue is identifying "associates'' based on some flimsy connections.

The Times' story detailed how a 22-year-old with a perfectly clean record in Largo was arrested for visiting a housing project where his grandmother and son live.

Why was he arrested? For violating a trespass warning. Why did he receive a trespass warning? Because his name was included on a gangs list. Why was his name on the gangs list? Because he has been seen socializing with known gang members.

Now take a second to digest that.

The entire justification for arresting a young man with a spotless record was because some of his friends are criminals. Everything else was just connecting the dots.

And it seemingly went unnoticed that he had perfectly valid reasons to be in that housing project.

Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting the young man does not share some culpability. Hanging out with gang members is a foolish choice for an unmarried, unemployed father of an infant. But poor judgment is not a crime.

"They need to have a little more justification than just saying he's been seen with gang members,'' said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "There needs to be some reasonable grounds like a prior arrest or prior conviction. Otherwise, that door is just wide open.''

Here's the problem:

Think about a young man who is constantly facing extra police scrutiny because his name is mistakenly added to this list. Or a young man denied a job because his name pops up on the wrong background check. In those cases, the list itself can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"I don't want law enforcement to aggravate the situation by putting these kids in a position where they can't be successful as adults,'' said Largo police Chief John Carroll. "We've got some work to do on this side of the equation to make sure we're not being reckless.''

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