Credit: New Bedford Light photo illustration; Unsplash photo

NEW BEDFORD — Some six months after a Boston-based youth advocacy group released a critical report alleging the city’s police department over-polices Black people and youth in the city, the department announced a new policy for policing gangs and identifying members or affiliates.

A six-page document, titled “Policy 419,” is the first written set of rules for the department regarding intelligence gathering, records maintenance and identification methods for criminal organizations, such as gangs, said Police Chief Paul Oliveira in an interview with The Light. 

The policy brings some significant changes, including a requirement to notify people if they are labeled as gang members. The requirement was recommended by Citizens for Juvenile Justice, which authored the critical report.

Oliveira said his department is ensuring transparency and accountability by going beyond industry standards with the policy. Social justice advocates and legal experts said some aspects were positive, but still cited areas of concern.

How much has changed?

Oliveira in a previous interview said there were “weaknesses” with the department’s methods of labeling gang members and monitoring input of the information into the police database. 

Asked if at least one other officer ever vetted the information filled out for a criteria list by another officer, Oliveira said there was “not much vetting out” and that if a person qualified, he or she would be marked in the system as being affiliated with a certain group. 

“There wasn’t a lot of direction and oversight over the process,” he said. “There really wasn’t a lot of accountability… once it was entered, no one was ever really going back and reviewing the data and seeing if it was still accurate. So, we just had a lot of inaccurate data.”

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The New Bedford Police Department, like others, uses a “criteria list” to determine whether an individual is a gang member. Each criterion has a specific point value, and if individuals meet a certain number of points, they will be labeled by law enforcement as a gang member or affiliate.

Under the old list, an individual needed at least 10 points to be labeled as a “validated gang member” in New Bedford. The list had 24 criteria and was adopted from a sheriff’s office or the Department of Corrections about 15 years ago, Oliveira said. 

The new policy increases the minimum points needed to 20, which can be reached from 17 possible criteria, to be “verified as gang affiliated.” Some of the criteria have new point values that are at least half the value from those on the original list.

Highlights of new gang policy

New Bedford’s new gang identification policy is contained in a six-page document. Here are some highlights of what’s new:

  • First time written as policy.
  • Point threshold for gang designation increased from 10 points to 20 points; some criteria were cut or decreased in point value
  • Individuals will be notified if they are entered into the system as a gang affiliate and have 14 days to respond to the request and meet with department personnel. 
  • The department should notify parents or guardians if an individual is “trending towards” violence or gang affiliation.
  • If a parent or guardian of a juvenile inquires as to whether their child is listed in a temporary information file in the criminal intelligence system, a supervisor should provide the information, unless it might jeopardize an ongoing investigation.
  • Supervisors of the gang and narcotics unit will oversee entries into the system.
Old criteriaPoint Value
Associate10
Contact with known gang members/associates2
Court and investigative documents9
Documented association, if in custody or incarcerated4
Documented association, if not in custody or incarcerated4
Group related photograph4
Information developed during investigation and/or surveillance5
Information from anonymous informant or tipster1
Information from reliable, confidential informant5
Information not covered by other selection criteria1
Information received from an unaffiliated law enforcement agency8
Known group tattoo or marking8
Membership documents9
Named in documents as a member8
Participation in publications8
Possession of documents, if in custody or incarcerated4
Possession of documents, if not in custody or incarcerated8
Possession of gang publications2
Prior validation by a law enforcement agency9
Published news accounts1
Self admission8
Use and or possession of group paraphernalia or identifiers4
Victim/Target affiliated with/member of rival group, if in custody or incarcerated3
Victim/Target affiliated with/member of rival group, if not in custody or incarcerated8
New criteriaNew point value
Documented contact or association w/ criminal organization i.e. youtube video1 per interaction
Court and investigative documents5
Group related photograph1
Information developed during investigation and/or surveillance3
Information from reliable, confidential informant3
Information not covered by other selection criteria1
Information received from an unaffiliated law enforcement agency5
Known group tattoo or marking4
Identified with/in membership documents9
Participation in publications6
Possession of documents2
Possession of criminal organization publications1
Prior validation by a law enforcement agency6
Self admission7
Use and or possession of group paraphernalia or identifiers2
Victim/target of violence, threat of violence or intimidation w/ affiliated member of rival group if not in custody4
Victim/target of violence, threat of violence or intimidation w/ affiliated member of rival group if in custody2
Prior validation by the Department of Correction or Sheriff’s Dept.9

“The public, I get it, was a little concerned with saying gang member — yes or no,” Oliveira said. “If you do qualify, now you’re just going to be affiliated with whatever gang it is.”

Katy Naples-Mitchell, an attorney with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, said the Boston Police Department also amended its policy in 2021 and now uses the term “associate.” Boston police currently use a 10-point threshold to verify someone as a gang associate, according to a policy document.

The Boston policy establishes that its intelligence center maintains discretion to decline to enter individuals in the database who meet the 10-point threshold but are determined to not be engaged in gang activity. The New Bedford policy does not contain such language. 

“The linguistic change is not particularly meaningful,” said Naples-Mitchell of the label switch from member to affiliate. “It will still operate as the same marker — and, if anything, allows the police an even broader sweep of suspicion.” 

Advocacy groups have criticized criteria lists used to “validate” or “verify” an individual as a gang member, arguing it is highly arbitrary and subjective. A known group tattoo or marking counts for eight points with the Boston Police Department, but only four points with New Bedford police under the new criteria list.

A case currently before the state’s Supreme Judicial Court concerning a New Bedford man calls into question the police department’s methods of labeling people as gang members and argues how it can be used to serve as a workaround to pat frisk someone. Eight organizations filed a joint brief with criticisms, including Citizens for Juvenile Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

FINALCriminal Organizations 419(2) by Anastasia Lennon on Scribd

Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice and a former public defender, said some criteria have the potential to be overly broad, such as being photographed with a gang member or being a victim of someone who is involved in a gang. 

“Having spent 20 years representing kids, you can see a scenario where there is a kid who lives in a certain neighborhood who gets bullied or beaten up by a kid who happens to be gang involved,” Smith said. “It can just be the nerdy kid on the block. The fact that that kid is a victim in that situation should not get them points.”

Being a victim or target of violence, threat of violence or intimidation with a member of a rival group counts for four points if the individual is not in custody or incarcerated. 

Smith said photographs as evidence can also be problematic as people who are not gang affiliated might attend a family cookout and be photographed with their cousin who is a gang member.

A group-related photograph was previously worth four points but is now worth one point.

“There is still a concern that young people gain points towards these databases that they shouldn’t,” he said. 

Renee Ledbetter, director of the youth-focused New Bedford Shannon program, said she thinks the policy change is a “good thing,” stating gang identification can affect people for the rest of their lives.

“To have a validated gang list is, for me, it means that these people will be marked for the rest of their life,” she said. “Say you’re 17 and you make a mistake. Now all of a sudden you’re on this gang list until god knows when.” 

Ledbetter and six other civilians who form the chief’s leadership advisory committee reviewed the draft policy and gave input that was generally “on the same page.” She said she was proud of the work the police department is doing, but she wishes nobody had any points.

The most significant change in the minds of some community leaders is the notification aspect. Going forward, if people are labeled in the system as being gang affiliated, they will be notified by certified mail and given 14 days to respond to a request to meet with the personnel who approved and verified the information.

“To have a validated gang list is, for me, it means that these people will be marked for the rest of their life. Say you’re 17 and you make a mistake. Now all of a sudden you’re on this gang list until god knows when.” 

Renee Ledbetter, director of the youth-focused New Bedford Shannon program

Smith said he felt language was lacking to explain how an individual might challenge or appeal the designation. 

“This isn’t a gotcha moment,” Oliveira said of the labeling, adding the idea for notification came not from law enforcement, but from the public. If the individual asks how they qualified, he said the department will provide that information. 

Ledbetter called the notification policy “amazing” and Smith gave credit to Oliveira, saying it was “encouraging” that the department took their criticisms “to heart.”

Smith and Naples-Mitchell, however, shared concerns with the aspect of notification that invites the individual to meet with department personnel involved in the designation.

Naples-Mitchell said the notification is a “big change,” but that the meeting invitation raises concerns about people engaging with law enforcement without the benefit of legal counsel, especially for juveniles. 

“Inviting kids to come talk to cops without the benefit of a lawyer is a dangerous prospect from the perspective of protecting people’s constitutional rights,” she said.

The policy establishes that officers should contact an individual’s parent or guardian if the department sees that person trending toward harm, violence or gang affiliation. Oliveira said police have already been doing outreach work through community initiatives, such as the Shannon program or the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative.

If a parent or guardian asks about whether their child’s name is stored in any temporary information files on gangs, then they may be given that information as long as it does not jeopardize an investigation, per the policy.

The department will also use active and inactive affiliate labels; if an individual is inactive with no documented association for two years, they may be purged from the system.  

New Bedford is going beyond other municipalities such as Boston, which establishes a review at least once every five years to determine inactivity and purging from its system. 

Not a ‘gang list,’ chief says

Citizens for Juvenile Justice received data from the department in October of 2020 labeled as validated gang members, according to an email forwarded to The Light. It listed 613 residents and nonresidents along with their age, sex, race and ethnicity. 

In its analysis, the organization found that Black residents were much more likely to be labeled as gang members, despite accounting for a small portion of the city’s population.

Oliveira said when the department provided the data, it gave the organization “everything,” not just validated gang members. 

“It was anybody that had any affiliation that we identified … We were very generous as far as what we classified at the time, just in the order of being transparent,” he said, noting the list included violent offenders or something “involving a handgun.” 


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He also said the data provided was put into list form for the purpose of Citizens for Juvenile Justice’s records request. All affiliation and membership status information, he said, are marked in an individual’s record, which is housed in a general database.

According to a state report, the department in 2020 confirmed 582 validated gang members — 172 or about 30 percent of whom were under 25 years of age. Under this new policy, Oliveira stated police are starting at zero for people identified as affiliates and will build up from that. 

“I don’t want people to feel like that’s our main goal, to try to identify gang members or try to label people as gang members,” Oliveira said. “I know that was kind of the perception. We kind of got a black eye on that … and it just wasn’t accurate.”

Amid the concerns, Smith said he has some hopes following this policy shift. 

“As a policy organization, we don’t release reports like the one we released in New Bedford simply to criticize,” Smith said. “We do it because we want to see things change for the better … The hope would be that some of the thinking that went into this draft will result in some better outcomes for young people, particularly young people of color, in New Bedford.”

Email Anastasia E. Lennon at alennon@newbedfordlight.org.

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