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Council approves new regional gang tracking software for APD

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council unanimously authorized a contract for new gang tracking software for the Austin Police Department by a vote of 7-0 on Thursday. The new software will allow the city of Austin, Travis County, and the Austin Independent School District to create a common system to track and document gang members.


Opposition to the new software centered on privacy concerns and lax criteria for identifying gang members.


“You should not be punished for what part of town you live in. You should not be punished for choosing to wear blue or red instead of beige,” said Debbie Russell, of the Central Texas Chapter of the ACLU of Texas.


According to state law, people are identified as gang members if they meet more than one characteristic from a set of criteria. APD Commander Chris Noble identified three examples: “If you are in a known gang area, you are wearing gang-affiliated clothing, or you self-admit as a gang member,” she told Council.


Though Council members expressed concerns about existing identification standards for putting gang members into the database, APD spokespeople tried to keep the discussion focused on the technical.


“This is nothing new,” said Noble “The only difference with this software as opposed to what we have now is that we are now able to collaborate with other law-enforcement agencies within the region.”


The new database will be integrated into the Austin Regional Intelligence Center (ARIC) system, which concerned Council Member Laura Morrison.


“There was a lot of discussion about exactly what kind of data would be maintained in the ARIC. And I thought that one of the requirements was that it had to be tied to potential crime,” said Morrison. “I guess that I am not quite getting why if you wear a certain color and fit one of the other triggers that it fits that requirement.”


Noble stated that there is a direct nexus between gang membership and crime. “It’s not against the law to be a gang member per se,” said Noble. “It goes back to the strong connection between gang membership and crime.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole expressed reservations about privacy concerns but said they would have to be addressed on another day.


“I always know that there is a balance between public safety and civil liberties, and we’re always trying to get it right. And this is just a piece of that puzzle that gives you a little bit more ammunition on the public safety side to potentially garner information,” said Cole.


“So I’m glad to hear that the Public Safety Commission is working on a privacy policy. And I believe that we as a Council will be entitled to review that policy and potentially adopt more stringent requirements, if we would like to do this.”


Council Member Bill Spelman said, “I think one of the reasons why this is raising people’s concerns is that people in the city of Austin have a certain faith in the Austin Police Department. Here we are combining our database, which is based on our practices, with the databases of other jurisdictions where we don’t have any control and where we don’t have the same faith that those other jurisdictions are abiding by the same rules that we are.”

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