It took nine months of cajoling and gentle persuasion by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to convince some of his law enforcement colleagues in the county to adjust their approach to a state law that can wrongly brand people as gang members. But a new countywide database, approved by the Pinellas Police Standards Council, will help keep better track of gang members and protect innocent individuals from being wrongly labeled just for being seen with relatives or friends who might be engaged in gang activity. These are commonsense reforms that should be adopted by law enforcement agencies statewide.
The issue arose in October after a Tampa Bay Times article about the 2011 arrest of Justin Wiley for visiting a Largo public housing complex where his son and grandmother live. Wiley, 23, who was listed as a gang member by the Sheriff's Office, had no prior criminal record, no known gang activity and no gang-related tattoos. He made his way onto the list because deputies had seen Wiley associating with gang members. The state's broad 11-point criteria mean anyone can land on the list as a gang associate if he or she meets just one standard; a person can be tagged as a gang member for meeting only two standards. And there is no way to promptly challenge the gang designation.
Under the more thoughtful provisions still being approved by some city governments, anyone wrongly listed as a gang member can now appeal the designation. There will be a set time frame for names to be removed from the list. Parents or legal guardians must by notified if their children have been listed as gang members or associates. And the new guidelines also create the centralized database on local gangs that is administered through the sheriff's office.
Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Tuesday that the vague state law was short-sighted and credited the county's law enforcement community support of the new criteria that could be a statewide model. It is appropriate that one of the first steps Gualtieri took to implement the reforms was removing Wiley's mug shot from the county jail's website. A young man's future should not be threatened by a broad state law that makes it too easy to permanently mislabel someone as a gang member or associate.