Dolores Magdaleno Memorial Recreation Center in Logan Heights on July 24, 2023.
Dolores Magdaleno Memorial Recreation Center in Logan Heights on July 24, 2023. In 2016, police arrested Jamie Wilson's son and his friends outside the Memorial Park recreation center and collected DNA samples without notifying the boys’ parents. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

When Jamie Wilson’s teenage son was added to CalGang — California’s gang database — in 2017, it drastically changed how he saw himself. He wasn’t a gang member, she said, but to him, being documented as one meant he would never be anything more to the police and the system.

“He stopped caring,” she said. “It became the center of who he was.”

Her son’s name never came off the list. Now an adult, he’s still suffering the consequences.

Over the last six years, the number of law enforcement agencies using CalGang has dropped by half. As of last year, 106 police departments still used it, including the San Diego Police Department.

Wilson, now co-chair of city of San Diego’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, thinks it’s time for SDPD to drop it. The commission recently created a sub-committee to study how San Diego police use the database.

File photo of Jamie Wilson outside the Memorial Park recreation center. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The sub-committee’s creation — and larger commission discussions about CalGang — has stirred up debate.

At a recent commission meeting, law enforcement officials who sit on the commission, including District Attorney Summer Stephan, criticized Wilson’s proposal.

“Every single meeting is focused on giving more rights to people who may or may not be involved in gangs,” Stephan said. “Are we sending the message to the community that we don’t care about victims of gang violence?”

Being in CalGang isn’t a crime, but critics say the database effectively criminalizes anyone whose information is entered: Entries include a photo; descriptions of clothing, scars and tattoos; names and addresses of family and friends and information from social media accounts.

Though access to CalGang is supposed to be limited to law enforcement, a 2016 state audit found that it had been used for employment and military-related screenings.

“It’s a label that you carry around,” Wilson said. “You’ve moved out of the human species and into the species of being a gang member.”

Wilson suspected her son was added to the CalGang database in retaliation for a lawsuit she filed on his behalf, challenging SDPD’s practice of collecting DNA from minors without parental consent. In 2016, police arrested her son and his friends outside the Memorial Park recreation center and collected DNA samples without notifying the boys’ parents.  

She settled the lawsuit and a 2018 state law put an end to police collecting DNA from minors without parental notification. Wilson is a member of the sub-committee and wants the group to recommend that SDPD stop using CalGang.

Getting out of CalGang, critics say, is nearly impossible, unless a person goes five years without meeting any one of the eight criteria that landed them in the database to begin with, which range from admitting to being a member of a gang to being seen associating with gang members — including on social media — wearing gang colors or frequenting a gang area.

Wilson said the sub-committee is gathering information on why some law enforcement agencies have stopped using CalGang and how often San Diego has used the database to solve a crime.

At least one local law enforcement agency, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, has stopped using CalGang. A department spokesperson described it as labor intensive.

“It requires additional hours dedicated to updating, purging and reviewing the system on a monthly basis,” said Lt. David LaDieu. “With the current staffing levels, our investigative gang units are using their time more effectively on active investigations and different investigative strategies.”

San Diego Police still think it’s worth it.

San Diego Police Det. Brian Hewitt and Lt. Vernon Peterson gave a joint presentation on CalGang at the commission’s meeting last week. Hewitt supervises the department’s use of the database.

San Diego Police officials discuss CalGang with members of the city's Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention. / Photo by Kelly Davis
San Diego Police officials discuss CalGang with members of the city’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention. / Photo by Kelly Davis

Hewitt described reforms to CalGang over the last decade, starting with a 2014 law that juveniles be notified when they’re entered into the database. A subsequent law authored by former San Diego Assemblymember Shirley Weber extended that right to adults and created a process that allows people who’ve been entered into CalGang to request to be removed.

While other jurisdictions require only two of the eight criteria be met to be entered into CalGang, San Diego now requires three, Hewitt said, and two of the more controversial criteria — being seen wearing gang colors and frequenting gang areas — count as only half a point.

Hewitt said he regularly conducts audits to make sure there is evidence supporting a person’s entry into CalGang.

Peterson described a recent case in which the perpetrator of a crime was identified through a description of his tattoos that had been entered into CalGang.

“CalGang has been around for 27 years,” Peterson said. “There is no other database in our system that provides this much information.”

Peterson said the department is looking at changing the way juveniles are notified about being entered into CalGang. The department would instead send a warning letter, letting parents know that their child meets CalGang criteria. The family would get a certain amount of time to enroll the youth in a community-based diversion program; if they choose not to, the youth would be entered into CalGang.

Wilson shares law enforcement’s goal to curtail gang violence. “We want to stop the violence, we want to stop the funerals,” she said. She’s just not sure state reforms go far enough.

“CalGang would make sense to me if it reflected what the research says,” Wilson said.

That research says that for a majority of gang members, “active” membership is shorter than the database’s three-year retention period for juveniles and five-year retention period for adults.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that most people remain in gangs for about two years,” said David Pyrooz, an associate professor of sociology at University of Colorado, Boulder. “Study after study shows it.” 

Pyrooz was one of 20 academic researchers specializing in gangs who wrote a letter to Attorney General Xavier Becerra in 2018 — when the Department of Justice was considering new regulations for CalGang — to recommend, among other things, scaling back the retention period to two years for juveniles and three years for adults.

DOJ officials rejected the recommendation, saying there was no California-based research on the lifespan of gang membership.

Pyrooz is opposed to doing away with gang databases because of the information they can provide on trends in gang violence and because they provide an opportunity to outreach to individuals who might benefit from intervention, similar to SDPD’s proposal to offer services to juveniles before entering them into CalGang. 

“What I’ve always argued is you don’t just do away with the databases altogether,” he said. “There can be value in having more targeted law enforcement interventions as opposed to more indiscriminate wide sweeps of supposed gang members — to peg it with some sort of community-based or government-based intervention to provide services, especially to the kids.”

But there could be a point soon when CalGang ceases to exist. In 2016, when the state conducted its audit, there were more than 100,000 people in the system. As of Sept. 30, 2022 — the most recent date for which data is available — CalGang included only 24,031 names.

Khalid Alexander is the founder and president of Pillars of the Community, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform. He cautioned that this drop in entries could be because some agencies have opted to create their own databases, which are exempt from state regulations.

He said any conversation about gang databases needs to focus on bigger-picture questions, like whether they enhance public safety or, instead, create community distrust of law enforcement.

CalGang, he said, “has been used to hyper-criminalize entire communities of Black and brown people.”

“When you’re being pulled over by police and the first question you’re being asked is are you a gang member or where are you from, if law enforcement is looking at regular people — even kids [walking] to school — as criminals, it raises the question of whether law enforcement is there to harm you or there to protect you,” he said.

Kelly Davis is a freelance journalist focusing on criminal justice and social issues. Follow her on Twitter @kellylynndavis or send an email to

Join the Conversation


  1. Gotta love Lib Logic , must have parental notification to take gang banger DNA but not to cut their Bobbit off.
    More police less criminals.

  2. According to VOSD’s article from 2017, her son was part of a group of men stopped for wearing gang colors on a gang holiday and the police found a gun in her son’s bag. A real sob story.

  3. Dan Smiechowski an old man and candidate for San Diego Mayor still suffers the consequences of being called a dumb Pollack by Americans since 1953. Vote Dan because he is dumb!

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