U.S. Judge Eric Melgren awarded class-action status to a lawsuit filed alleging the Wichita Police Dept.’s use of a gang list has disproportionately harmed communities of color.

Key Points

  • A lawsuit alleging the Wichita Police Dept.’s gang list disproportionately harms communities of color.
  • The gang list includes 5,000+ people, with Black and Latino residents being targeted.
  • Individuals on the list face surveillance, harassment, and discrimination without evidence or criminal charges.

A lawsuit filed in April 2021 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Kansas Appleseed Center for Law & Justice alleging the Wichita Police Dept.’s use of a gang list has disproportionately harmed communities of color has been certified as a class action lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Progeny, an advocacy group that describes itself as “a youth-adult partnership focused on reimagining the juvenile justice system and reinvestment into community-based alternatives.”

The ruling is the next step in the lawsuit that says criteria to be added to the list are “vague and broad and encompass a wide range of innocuous, innocent and constitutionally protected behavior.” 

Actions that could land you on the list — as outlined in Kansas Statute — include wearing a criminal street gang’s color, associating with criminal street gang members or frequenting a particular criminal street gang’s area.

Designation as class-action allows the ACLU and Appleseed to represent all individuals on the gang list, even if they don’t know they’re on the list. Reportedly, the gang list includes 5,245 people: 1,728 active gang members; 3,296 inactive gang members; and 221 gang associates.

The complaint says the police department’s gang list is discriminatory toward Black and Latino residents. Black residents account for 60% of the list but only 10.9% of Wichita’s population. Latino residents make up 25% of those on the list and 17.2% of the city’s population.

Only 6% of those on the gang list are White, despite making up 62.8% of the population.

Wichita police officers have unilateral power to designate a resident as a gang member based on unreliable evidence or even without evidence, the organizations claim.

Committing or even being charged with a crime is not a prerequisite to be placed on this list, said Teresa Woody, litigation director for Kansas Appleseed. However, the legal and personal consequences — which include intensive surveillance, traffic stops, and increased bail — are often felt lifelong, she said.

Individuals on the gang list are subjected to constant surveillance, harassment, and housing and employment discrimination. Those who are convicted of a crime face higher bond amounts, more severe probation and parole conditions, and longer sentences.

“They are targeting communities of people, most of whom have nothing to do with gang violence, street gangs, and many of them and most of whom have never even been suspected of a crime,” Woody said. “They’re up on the list with all these really horrible repercussions for their lives.”

The ACLU and Kansas Appleseed, along with several individual and group plaintiffs, assert the gang list is unconstitutional and violates community members’ First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. 

The class-action suit challenges the “unchecked and far-reaching” Kansas law and Wichita police policy, and calls on Wichita to cease any current or future use of the list.

According to Kansas Appleseed, Wichita is the only municipal police department in the state currently using such a database. WPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Once identified by police as gang members, people are placed on the list without notice or opportunity to challenge, the lawsuit says. The gang list and locations designated as gang territory are not available to the public, per Kansas statute.

Individuals will remain designated as active or associate for a minimum of three years. If after three years there is no documented activity, the individual’s status will change to inactive. However, the name will remain on the list, and if the individual meets any of the initial criteria, the three-year period will start over.

“We’ve heard there are entire businesses and entire parts of neighborhoods where people can’t go, because if they do, they will be flagged either for inclusion on the database, or they will be reassessed as active on the database,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. “So it has these sorts of deep implications for people’s First Amendment rights to associate with people and to express oneself.”

When on the list, one may face a variety of future legal difficulties or personal hurdles, plaintiffs said. Kansas law mandates judges set cash bail for those on the gang list at a minimum of $50,000. Exceptions may be given if the court determines the defendant is not likely to re-offend, but in those cases, they must submit to intensive pretrial supervision.

Brett said people designated as gang members face frequent harassment from police officers, including stops on minor traffic violations like failing to signal within 100 feet. In light of the recent shooting of Daunte Wright in Minnesota, pretextual stops like these are increasingly problematic, Brett said.

“The way that this gang list is used to target people and the way that WPD officers might go into those encounters with Black and Brown motorists who are on the gang list, conceiving of them already in their mind as getting members,” Brett said. “The implications of that are terrifying, frankly, for that community.”

Repeated Harassment

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit said the impact of being placed on that list is often felt in a variety of ways, both on a day-to-day basis and over their lifetime.

Even for those who never come into contact with law enforcement, the placement on the list could affect career outcomes. The gang affiliation may come up on a background check because the police department contracts with entities like the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Woody said.

One of the named plaintiffs, a 26-year-old Black man, was placed on the list in 2015 when he was 18. He said the designation came up in a background check, and he was denied employment for it.

A common thread among all named plaintiffs is that they allege consistent and frequent surveillance, harassment and targeting by police for minor traffic infractions.

“I have gotten pulled over so many times with police using the gang list as an excuse to search my car — never receiving a ticket but constantly harassed,” said Dante Bristow, a youth leader of Progeny, an organization focused on reimagining the juvenile justice system in Kansas.

Progeny joined as a plaintiff because the ban hinders its ability to carry out its mission. Youth leaders indicated considerable resources have been used to assist those unjustly placed on the list.

Members could face consequences for even associating with one another.

Another plaintiff, a 45-year-old Black man, has been on the list since 1997, when he was 22. He said he has been continuously listed as active on the gang list since then because he gathers with friends who are also on the list.

“Having an unverified and inaccessible gang list speaks volumes about the racial profiling, targeting and harassment of Black and Brown people in our community,” said Kristen Powell and NyKia Gatson, Progeny youth leaders. “If we continue to refuse to address lists such as the gang list, then we are refusing to address the legalized racism in our own community.”

In June, former Wichita Police Capt. Wendell Nicholson received a diversion for linking confidential police information that included information about the Wichita gang list. Nicholson may have been among those officers within the department who were behind changing the list, including some who provided “positive” depositions in the case in favor of the plaintiffs. .