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The Cook County Sheriff's Office plans to decommission a regional gang database once maintained by law enforcement in Lake County, if no other agency agrees to take control by early next month, a spokeswoman said.

Cook County sheriff's police took control of the database about six years ago from the Lake County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which is now known as the Indiana HIDTA.

"Right now, with the priorities of the department, we have no capacity or desire to maintain the database," sheriff's spokeswoman Cara Smith said.

Interest in using the database among law enforcement agencies never reached anticipated levels, she said.

"It's not one of our priorities to expend resources maintaining it," she said.

Gary police regularly use and update the database, Cmdr. Jack Hamady said. 

"It will be a loss to us," he said. 

Primary users include officers serving on the Multi-Agency Gang Unit and federal task forces, but patrol officers also access the data at times, he said. The regional database has been helpful to officers when dealing with individuals with criminal histories in Illinois, he said.

"Crime doesn't have borders," Hamady said. 

Gang databases can help protect officers, he said. When police know an individual may have gang connections, officers can be more mindful about watching for weapons and take other safety precautions.

In general, local investigators use the regional gang database as a tool to find connections.

Constant maintenance required

The database provides vital information for agencies, but can be research-intensive, said Joseph Ferrandino, a former Indiana University Northwest professor who now leads the School of Criminal Justice at Ferris State University in Michigan.

When more agencies have access to such a database, the amount of time required to keep information up to date and accurate grows, he said.

"It's really important," Ferrandino said. "It's a great database, if it's maintained and updated."

Indiana HIDTA cannot resume its support of the database, because HIDTA is an initiative, not an agency, Executive Director Charles Porucznik said. 

The Gary Police Department considered taking over the database, but it's likely not feasible given the current budget outlook, Hamady said.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson’s administration is asking the department to cut its budget by about $1 million next year, from a City Council-approved $11.69 million to just less than $10.7 million.

Federal law lays out a number of requirements for such databases, resulting in a need for constant maintenance. As the database grows, the amount of hours required to maintain it also increases, he said. 

A member of the Indiana National Guard counter-drug unit who works in the Indiana HIDTA office is working with his law enforcement contacts to find another agency to host the database, Porucznik said.

"I think it would be beneficial to maintain it," he said.

Ferrandino said some of the departments he worked with in Indiana started keeping their own micro databases and were not updating the regional gang database.

The Hammond Police Department no longer uses the database and would not be affected if it is decommissioned, Lt. Steven Kellogg said. Hammond police use the Spillman system, which is used by all Lake County police agencies, and in-house methods to track gangs, he said.

Regional approach, more requirements

Ferradino said the regional database was a starting point for many agencies, which extracted data but then independently verified it. 

A regional database can increase efficiency, because investigators save time by going to one source instead of contacting multiple individual agencies for information, he said.

A regional approach also requires more stringent record-keeping standards, which might prevent the kind of problems the Chicago Police Department has seen recently.

Critics have blasted Chicago's gang database for being racially skewed and including inaccurate and out-of-date information. A lawsuit filed last summer alleges Chicago police have managed the database in a way that is “arbitrary, discriminatory” and “over-inclusive,” The Associated Press reported.

Concerns about inaccuracies, discriminatory practices and other injustices did not factor into the Cook County sheriff's decision to decommission the database, Smith said. Cook County has never been sued over its database and has strictly followed federal requirements, she said. 

"Our database does not have the sort of issues ... that other databases have had," she said.

For instance, information is automatically purged if agencies fail to verify its accuracy, she said.

While a number of other agencies maintain similar databases, merging data from Cook County with data at another potential host site could present a challenge, officials said.

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Public Safety Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.