Out of the gang, but still on the database
Every time LeVan Blalark gets into his car, he thinks about what might happen if he gets pulled over. For him, it's never just a simple traffic stop.
Blalark, 33, grew up in Elgin for the most part, but also lived in Hanover Park, Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates.
He assumes some of the friends he made in high school got involved in gangs, though he says he never did. He suspects it was back then that he was entered into a police department gang database -- an action that has affected every traffic stop he has had in the last 15 years.
"Every time I get pulled over they ask me if I'm still in a gang," Blalark said. "My answer has always been the same: I'm not in a gang."
Police departments across the state, whether they have dedicated gang units or not, keep a gang database or add names to a state roster.
Naperville inputs contact information of individuals, though it's broader than just gang members. Same for Batavia. Schaumburg taps into Cook County's database for its information storage.
No matter the system, individual departments help populate a broader state list available through LEADS -- the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System. When an officer enters an individual's name into LEADS during a traffic stop, for example, a whole host of information about that person's criminal background shows up, including any presence on a gang roster.
Monique Bond, public information officer for the Illinois State Police, said that information can be used across state lines.
For Blalark, that means wherever he goes in the United States, he will have a reputation as a gang member to any police officer who runs his name. Schaumburg Sgt. Tom Greenaway confirmed Blalark's name bears a gang note, but doesn't show any convictions for criminal activity.
"My daughter is 6 years old," Blalark said. "I don't need my daughter to hear the police ask me if I'm in a gang when I've never been in a gang. That's something you don't want your kids to hear when you get pulled over for rolling a stop sign or running a red light."
Departments add names to databases if individuals meet criteria like wearing gang colors or an insignia, having gang tattoos, throwing gang signs in public or associating with other known gang members.
It's that last criterion that catches some like Blalark, who claim no involvement in gangs.
Ramiro Avendano Jr., 41, worked in Elgin Area School District U-46 for 17 years in a security and support role, conducting intervention with kids and mediation with the administration. His job was to make sure the school climate was one in which kids felt safe.
He left that position looking for new opportunities and plans to graduate from Judson University within the next year, then look for a job in special education.
After living in Elgin through his teens and twenties, avoiding the gang lifestyle and the notice of police officers, Avendano thinks he made it onto the gang database only about five years ago.
During a broader federal investigation in 2004 and 2005 that included him -- but in which he was never charged -- Avendano heard his name was added to the database and put into an internal department flier connecting him to a gang. He knows he is in the database because of association with gang members, a point he doesn't deny. And he hasn't tried to get his name off the list.
"I know who I was hanging out with and I know where I come from," Avendano said, noting he has childhood friends who joined gangs.
"But friends are friends. We grew up together," he added. "You don't just walk away from that type of friendship."
Avendano was charged with aggravated battery in 1991 and DUI in 1994, but has never been convicted of any gang activity.
Lt. Jeff Adam, commander of the neighborhood enforcement division in Elgin, called the department's protocol conservative when it comes to adding people's names to the list. And, if people are inactive for two years their names are removed, added Adam, who oversees the department's gang unit.
But Blalark's last run-in with police, according to a search by Greenaway, was in 2006.
Adam would not comment on why Blalark was added to the list or is still on it. He said people shouldn't think it's so terrible to be on the gang roster because it is for internal police department purposes only. The only people who have access to the database are officers.
He pointed to a murder case about six years ago in which officers visited the homes of 70 people listed as gang members before finding the suspect in Green Bay, Wis.
"We caught him within 24 hours," Adam said. "That's just because of this database."
When it comes to traffic stops, Adam said, searching someone's name and seeing a gang affiliation lets officers know they should be especially cautious in dealing with the person.
"It's not for enforcement purposes, it's strictly for officer safety," he said.
Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union question the distribution of names on these databases.
Ed Yohnka, director of communications for the ACLU in Chicago, said challenges to the databases across the country routinely show disproportionate numbers of young men of color on the lists. Then when names are added in error or remain on the lists long after they should be, Yohnka said, resources are poorly targeted.
"Police spent 15 more minutes questioning someone at a traffic stop who wasn't a threat; meanwhile someone else may be somewhere committing a crime," Yohnka said.
Marcus Banner, of Elgin, is an example of someone claiming his name has remained on the database more than a decade after he turned his back on gang life. Banner said he joined a gang at the age of 11, spent a lot of time in juvenile detention until he was 15, and then ended up in prison at 20 for dealing drugs.
Banner said he decided to leave the gang while he was in prison -- realizing he wasn't helping his family by being locked up -- and never went back.
Now 33, Banner reaches out to gang members and at-risk youth, trying to help them choose a better path. He said he shouldn't be in the database anymore but has been told his name will not come off it if he doesn't stop talking to current gang members.
He won't do that because the people he helps need intervention and someone to talk with about their options.
"It's not an easy thing to do, but if you can plant the right seed and show them somebody who has made mistakes can make a decision and be a productive person, it can inspire them to take a good look at themselves," Banner said.
For former gang members, Banner said, a lifetime label is unfair. He even suggests developing some kind of clemency program that eventually would give those with convictions a "true new beginning."
In the meantime, a trend toward ever-increasing information sharing among police departments and government agencies means databases like ones that track gang activity are becoming more common.
That's another concern for the ACLU. Yohnka said data collection stored in secret databases that individuals don't have the chance to monitor or correct is troubling. He said there needs to be more controls on data collection and more review before names get added to lists like gang rosters.
A bill at the national level looks to create a database, administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, to track gangs and coordinate the response by law enforcement. The National Safe Streets Gang Crime Prevention Act, introduced by Rep. Jerry McNerny of California in March, would include a process for removing people from the database.
But officers throughout the region already point to laws saying they must review the databases at least every five years.
Schaumburg Sgt. Greenaway said each year his gang unit looks at five-year time periods and anyone who doesn't have police contact in those five years comes off the list.
"We don't want people on there that shouldn't be on there," Greenaway said. "It just takes up space and time and it's not right for the person."
But only departments that add a name to the list can take it off.
Elgin's Lt. Adam said his unit checks annually as well, though people like Blalark question with some frustration whether reality matches stated protocol in Elgin. Blalark said that when he has asked about getting off the list, officers have told him nothing can be done.