AUSTIN (KXAN) — A 25-year U.S. Army veteran from New Mexico with no criminal history testified at a 2021 state legislative hearing that he’d been wrongfully placed in Texas’ gang intelligence database, making it difficult for him to access an El Paso veterans hospital and lawfully carry a handgun in the state.

Another man, also speaking to the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, said he was a professor with no criminal history yet classified as a gang member in Texas. He didn’t know he was in the database until he was detained by Mexican authorities in Guadalajara and denied entry to the country during a humanitarian visit in 2017.

Those men were among several motorcycle club members who testified in favor a bill authored by State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint. The bikers, who said they were not part of any criminal gang, alleged Texas’ gang database violated their constitutional rights.

Gonzalez’s legislation was intended to reform the system by adding rules that would require notifying people put in it and providing a method for getting removed, among other changes. Her bill didn’t pass, but Gonzalez, who also sits on the House Appropriations Committee, did manage to add a budget rider to ensure a state audit of the gang database, commonly called TxGANG.

The State Auditor’s Office conducted the probe and released its findings in August. The audit identified more than 5,000 records that were uploaded without the required information and over 1,000 that weren’t validated within the last five years – a federal requirement.

The audit pulls the curtain back on flaws in a database that law enforcement officials consider critical to tackling gang violence – an issue state leaders have devoted millions of dollars to address.

“Because we weren’t able to get that piece of legislation through, an audit also seemed critically important,” Gonzalez told KXAN in an interview. “We were finding that individuals had been on this database longer than was allowed. And there was really, again, a lack of accountability and transparency.”

Issue rating: ‘Priority’

Texas’ gang database “serves as a statewide repository of criminal intelligence information on gang organizations and their members. TxGANG’s goal is to improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice community by providing for the timely exchange of documented and reliable information,” according to the audit.

DPS operates the database, but the information is supplied and maintained by individual law enforcement agencies. Agencies in municipalities with more than 50,000 people or in counties with more than 100,000 are required to contribute gang information to the database, the audit states.

A person can get a record in TxGANG without an arrest. Each law enforcement agency is responsible for validating its own TxGANG records, and individuals can have more than one TxGANG record, according to the audit.

The database has more than 71,600 records of supposed gang members associated with “at least one of 10,845” gang organizations, according to the audit. The scope of the audit was to find all records over 10 years old and determine the number of those that were not validated within five years.

Auditors discovered more than 15,000 records that were at least a decade old in February. More than 6,800 of those – or 44% – were not validated within the last five years or didn’t contain all the information needed to determine if they had been validated as required by federal regulations, according to the audit.

Agencies are supposed to review and validate their records every two years for juveniles and every five years for adults. To validate a record, law enforcement review court records and supporting documentation, such as social media and photographs, to determine if a record should be kept in the database.

If a record isn’t validated, the database could be holding the records in the gang database inappropriately, auditors said.

Most of the records that weren’t properly validated were of individuals who were incarcerated. The database currently allows the validation process to be suspended while a person is incarcerated, but auditors found law enforcement agencies were suspending the validation checks for people’s entire sentencing period. That has caused problems when a person got early release or parole. Auditors found people who were no longer incarcerated still had the gang record validation on pause.

Federal rules also require law enforcement agencies to document the date they review a record, the name of the reviewer and an explanation or conclusion for the decision to retain a record. TxGANG policies, however, don’t require a validation date or the name of the person doing the review. Without that information, auditors said they couldn’t determine if more than 5,700 records were validated in time.

In an email to KXAN, DPS said it routinely provides law enforcement with guidance and usage policies for the gang database but had not disseminated the audit findings.

DPS “is working to identify agencies and will begin working with them one-on-one to address identified deficiencies,” according to the agency’s email.

The audit specifically identified flaws in the process of uploading information by “batch.” Unlike individually uploaded records, which had complete information, auditors found records sent to the database in batches lacked important information. DPS said it would be targeting agencies that use batch uploading and ensuring they put information in correctly.

Database Projects Group is the vendor operating the database, and DPS’s contract with Database Projects Group expires at the end of 2023, the agency said. The company’s executive could not be reached for comment.

More accountability

Gonzalez said she doesn’t want to hinder law enforcement, and she understands the database contains important criminal justice information. Nevertheless, the system needs reform, she said.

According to a House analysis of her bill, a person can be put in the database without their knowledge; there is no practical method to disputes being included in the database; and individuals could be put on the list without reasonable cause. Being listed in the database can have a serious impact on a person’s life.

Gonzalez said she plans to file her gang database reform bill again in the next legislative session beginning in January.

Her 2021 bill would have required DPS to notify people within 60 days of being entered into the gang database, including a description of the process for disputing the inclusion and removing themselves from the database. The legislation would have also barred a person’s inclusion in the database from being used to determine their employment eligibility or limit their state or federal rights.

In addition, the law would have established a person’s right to request a review of their, or their child’s, criminal street gang information submitted to DPS for inclusion in the database. A person would also have a 60-day deadline from the time of receiving their notification of being on the database to file a petition for judicial review, according to a House analysis of the bill.

The database needs more accountability, Gonzalez said. Being placed in it could thwart a person from being able to obtain a job in law enforcement or bar them from being able to carry a firearm they would otherwise be able to legally carry, she said.

Not following federal guidelines could prompt the federal government to withhold funds from a state agency. Gonzalez said she wanted to get in front of that possibility and build a coalition to address any issues before federal involvement.

“It is not out of the realm of possibility that we get dinged in the state of Texas because we are not following federal rules,” Gonzalez said.

KXAN asked the U.S. Department of Justice if it was aware of the audit or had any plans to investigate or take action, but we did not receive a response before publishing.