For nearly a decade, the New York Police Department’s gang database spurred controversy. Police said it was a vital tool to curb gang violence, but advocates contended that it used flimsy evidence to target people of color. So in 2018, the city’s Department of Investigation initiated a four-year probe into the strategy.
Now, The Trace and Gothamist have learned, the NYPD has created another list, this one focused on gun violence. Neither the NYPD nor the Adams administration have announced the list’s creation, nor has the news media reported on it. But two law enforcement supervisors with direct knowledge of the list confirmed that it exists.
The NYPD drew up the Gun Recidivist Investigation Program list, known as the GRIP List, soon after Mayor Eric Adams took office earlier this year, an NYPD supervisor with knowledge of the list said. The list is made up of people the department believes are involved in recent gun violence.
Civil liberties and anti-surveillance advocates are concerned about the list, which both the advocates and law enforcement sources say may include not just people with gun charges, but also suspects, witnesses, and victims. Law enforcement sources said rank-and-file officers can access the list through an internal NYPD portal and that several NYPD units are using it as part of investigations, on patrol, and to surveil those on the list.
Chief of Crime Control Strategies Michael LePetri, who helped create the GRIP list, referred to it at a March City Council committee hearing on Adams’ Blueprint to End Gun Violence. His comments weren’t picked up by the news media at the time. At the hearing, LePetri didn’t divulge details about the list’s makeup or criteria, but he argued that it enables the department to be precise by focusing on a limited number of people it alleges are driving gun violence.
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“We identified individuals that have been involved in multiple shooting incidents over the past two years. One of those shooting incidents, this individual must actually pull the trigger,” LePetri told the committee. “That population is less than .009% of the population in New York City. And we look at that list, the majority of these individuals also have previous felony convictions, prior gun convictions, open gun arrests. These are the individuals that are driving gun violence in New York City. And these are the very individuals that our Gun Violence Suppression Division is focused on.”
The NYPD declined to provide details about the list despite three requests for comment. “Unfortunately we will be unable to accommodate your request,” a police spokesperson wrote in an email. The department also declined two Freedom of Information Law requests regarding the list. “Such information, if disclosed, would reveal non-routine techniques and procedures,” the department wrote. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s unclear exactly how many people are on the list, and whether the department has changed or updated qualifications for inclusion since it was created. Three law enforcement sources — including two supervisors who spoke to The Trace and Gothamist on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media — confirmed the list’s existence and provided some detail about the criteria the department uses to place people on it. As LePetri said, a person who is alleged to have pulled the trigger in a shooting, even shootings in which no one is struck, may be placed on the list. But according to our sources, “any role” in two or more shootings may also qualify someone for inclusion.
Those criteria mean that people who have been accused, but not convicted, of involvement in gun violence qualify for the list, but so do others who may have simply been present at shootings. The burden of proof for inclusion is far lower than for bringing charges in court and requires no conviction or even an arrest. Someone police have designated as a person of interest could qualify.
“Most young Black and brown New Yorkers have had some interaction with the police, and they are likely to spend time in areas where gun violence is a lived reality,” said Dawit Getachew, a criminal defense practice policy counsel at the Bronx Defenders. “A list like this becomes a way to criminalize neighborhoods, not individuals. It creates a host of problems without oversight, especially given the problematic history of the NYPD.”
Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, an advocacy and legal organization that litigates against excessive police surveillance, said that, in some cases, the list could subject even crime victims to increased scrutiny: “I’m imagining someone was wrongly suspected of a shooting, never did anything, some time later, they are actually targeted in a shooting. Now they’re going to be subject to this surveillance.”
The law enforcement officials said they do not believe the department is notifying people that they’ve been included on the list, nor are they providing them with a way to challenge their inclusion.
The broad criteria and apparent lack of notification concern civil liberties advocates and several city officials who only recently learned about the list. “From my time as a public defender, I know just how easily this sort of operation can turn into a dragnet for poor and working class Black and brown New Yorkers, providing a pretext for over-surveillance, with no accountability, transparency, or ability to contest being put on the list,” Councilmember Tiffany Caban, a member of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said through a spokesperson over text message. “There are a lot of questions the NYPD must answer about this program.”
The NYPD has long operated sweeping surveillance efforts that collect and distribute information on those it alleges to be habitual offenders, and those practices have mostly affected young men of color. The gang database, officially named the Criminal Groups Database, included more than 40,000 people whom the department alleged to be involved with gangs, according to one estimate. As of 2018, more than 99 percent of its members were people of color, according to the demographics the department disclosed during City Council oversight hearings.
Advocates repeatedly called for the NYPD to abolish it, and former Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, who is now the Brooklyn borough president, tried to force the NYPD to shut it down. The department has also faced lawsuits from people who challenged their inclusion on the list. Others have been forced to sue to find out whether they were on the list after the NYPD denied their FOIL requests. According to public defenders, the database remains in use.
Inclusion in the gang database, the defenders said, could trigger deportation proceedings, factor into school discipline, and prompt raids or other enforcement action by law enforcement agencies. It could also, they said, lead to heftier bail amounts in court proceedings, and tougher sentencing. It became a key component of the department’s strategy after its “stop and frisk” policy was deemed unconstitutional, but advocates contended that the database amounted to a digital version of stop and frisk.
Because of the secrecy surrounding the GRIP List, it’s hard to say what its effects have been so far. The divisions using it include the department’s Gun Violence Suppression Division, which is tasked with investigating gun trafficking; the newly launched Neighborhood Safety Teams, the controversial revamp of the plainclothes anti-gun units disbanded amid the 2020 protests; and local precincts, the law enforcement sources said.
“What we’re doing is putting them on a list and waiting for them to commit gun violence,” one police supervisor said. “They’re under investigation, but they’re out on the streets. If we actually had something on them, they’d probably be locked up.”
Chicago, Los Angeles, and several other cities have faced scrutiny for similar databases. The people placed on such lists have received increased attention from police, up to and including street harassment, according to Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College who studies policing tactics. A 2019 probe into Chicago’s gang list found that it strained community-police relations as community members experienced misidentification, harassment, obstacles to immigration relief, and racial profiling.
Being on a list connected to gun violence can also intensify the nature of interactions between officers on patrol and people on the list, Vitale said. “They run your license, and then this big red flag pops up,” he said. “And now all of a sudden, the cop has got his hand on his gun, wants to put you in cuffs while they search the car, and it escalates the whole interaction.”
Research does suggest that gun violence is highly concentrated among a relatively small number of people who are often both victims and perpetrators. Strategies like focused deterrence, including Boston’s Ceasefire, involve communicating directly with groups at high risk. Law enforcement officers, often working alongside community leaders, ask for the violence to stop while offering access to social services, such as job training and drug treatment. In some cases, if the violence continues, police may target participants with arrests or other legal consequences. The NYPD operates a similar program in some precincts called NYC Ceasefire, but other efforts to replicate the idea in the city were short-lived.
In Washington, D.C., which has its own controversial gang database, city officials recently announced a separate effort to target 200 people whom a study identified as the drivers of most of the city’s violence. Instead of targeting those people with surveillance or threats of arrest, the city is offering support. Three-person teams — a government employee with community credibility; a staffer from the Office of Neighborhood Safety; and a member of the mayor’s cabinet — will work to establish relationships with people on the list and connect them and their families to wrap-around services like job training, employment, and mental and behavioral health care.
Advocates say that New York could follow a similar model, but it would require the Police Department to be more transparent and to share the intelligence with violence prevention workers and social services providers.
“Let’s assume for a minute that this list somewhat accurately reflects a high risk of involvement in violence,” Vitale said. “Why is it only a police department matter? Why don’t we have a full set of interventions that don’t start with surveillance and incarceration?”
It took years of legal battles and intense City Council oversight efforts to get any detailed information about the NYPD’s gang database, and some fear that may happen again with the GRIP List. “Imagine a government agency other than the Police Department rolls out a major new initiative with new databases and a whole new approach, and no one can tell you what it is,” Vitale said. “There’s no transparency, no one will tell you on the record what it is. It’s outrageous.”
Vitale also said that the lack of transparency may be a violation of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, a 2020 New York City law that requires the Police Department to provide transparency on the surveillance and information-sharing technologies it uses.
A police supervisor, who spoke in the condition of anonymity, said the department doesn’t want to attract attention: “Anything with databases, they’re nervous about talking about that.”
WNYC/Gothamist Reporter Gwynne Hogan and People and Power Editor David Cruz contributed reporting.
Clarification: This story was updated with more details on the focused deterrence model, and with additional information on an existing NYC Ceasefire program.