Gang of One

Critics say cops and prosecutors are too quick to label some minorities as gangsters

Khanh Le is a stoic guy. He keeps to himself, smiles broadly and constantly, and reacts to most everything with calm -- so much calm that Houston Police Department officers thought it suspicious when they arrested him one afternoon in November 1996. Le had just put his nephew to sleep and left to buy bottled water when he was pulled over by a sheriff's deputy in a patrol car just blocks from his family's Alief home. He was still wondering if he had been speeding when he realized this was not a routine traffic stop. Seven officers from three law enforcement agencies -- HPD, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the sheriff's department -- waited behind the squad car.

"I didn't know what was going on," Le says. "They asked to search my home. I said, 'Sure, why not.' "

The officers arrested Le on charges of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon for the holdup of a nail salon that had occurred three months earlier. Combing his room, police confiscated snapshots of Le with friends; "photos of possible gang members," an officer wrote in the offense report.

Attorney Tom Hoang says labeling a crime gang-related seems like an easy way to get a conviction.
Melissa Hung
Attorney Tom Hoang says labeling a crime gang-related seems like an easy way to get a conviction.

Today, at age 29, Le has one more year to serve on his three-year probation for conviction on a reduced charge, of robbery. But Le insists he's not a robber, much less a gang member. And he finds himself an unwitting example of what Asian community activist and attorney Tom Hoang says is a troubling trend: police slapping young Asian-Americans with gang-member labels when they're not gangsters. If a prosecutor proves that a defendant committed a crime as part of an organized group, that evidence can increase the penalty by a degree. But Hoang and other defense attorneys say that the mere suspicion of gang membership can lead to the conviction of innocent people.

Concerns go beyond those of defense attorneys and clients. Texas legislators, as part of a law setting up a statewide database on gang members, toughened the standards law enforcement uses to determine if someone belongs to a gang. To comply with the new law, Houston police are reviewing more than 15,000 entries on alleged gangsters.

"The buzz word is 'gang-related,' " says Hoang, onetime secretary of former mayor Bob Lanier's Asian anti-gang advisory board. "It bumps up the penalties and bolsters the credibility of the officer. Just because of the label, they put them away, whether or not they committed the crime."

When an HPD officer suspects someone of gang activity, he fills out a "gang card," which is then reviewed by officers in the Criminal Intelligence Division. If the evidence meets state qualifications, the name is entered into a database of gang members. Documentation in the database can serve as strong evidence for the state, says Assistant District Attorney Julian Ramirez. "If the evidence is there, oftentimes a jury will be willing to assess a higher punishment," he says.

Because of the damaging nature of inclusion in the database, officers meticulously evaluate the cards, says John Karshner, CID gang sergeant. So accusations of racial profiling are unfounded, he says.

"A guy can say, 'You picked on me because five of us were standing here and we're Asian, but we're not a gang.' And we say, 'Well, you meet the criteria of a gang, and we say you are.' So it becomes a game thing, 'Yes, you are.' 'No, I'm not.' Back and forth," Karshner says. "Nobody goes into a church and says, 'There's five Asians; that's a gang.' We don't do that. Defense attorneys have their own obstacles, so it may appear to them that way. But I don't have evidence of that. Asians make a small part of our gang stuff."

In fact, it has been harder to classify people as gangsters since the state Legislature revised the regulations last September, Karshner says. For example, under the old laws, self-admission of gang membership was enough to earn a spot in the database. Now, law enforcement must first establish reasonable suspicion that someone has committed crimes. And gang ties must be verified by at least two types of independent information gathered by police. Officers themselves can identify the person as one who associates with known gang members, or police can have reliable informants make that identification. Other types of information include confirmation that the person dresses like gang members and "throws" -- flashes -- their hand signals.

The stricter rules came about after law enforcement agencies requested a statewide gang database. Royce West of Dallas, the state senator who wrote the bill, says he wanted not only to establish uniform standards, but also to ensure that people wouldn't be classified as gang members based solely on characteristics. Just because someone wears baggy pants and lives in a gang area doesn't mean he's in a gang, West says.

The database is scheduled for launch in September. Houston police CID officers have until then to examine the 15,312 people in the database, says Lieutenant Milton Jones, citywide gang coordinator. "If an individual doesn't fit the new criteria, then we gotta delete it," he says.

Besides, Karshner says, inactive records are removed from the database after three years for adults, and after two years for juveniles. "We don't believe the California story that once you're in a gang, you're in forever. Once that record goes, it's gone," he says. But while the record's around, it could help identify criminal suspects. "We've solved some homicides and big-profile crimes using [database] information we have, but we're very cautious with it," he says. "Does it help us solve crimes? Yes. Do people get put in there wrongly? I don't know."

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