This article has been corrected to show Ward is president of the Grim Guardians Motorcycle Club

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Chris Ward travels the state discussing legislative priorities affecting the motorcycle community, and he keeps running into bikers claiming they’ve been wrongfully entered into Texas’ gang database.

Ward – who goes by “Clutch” and serves as legislative liaison for the biker advocacy group Texas Council of Clubs and Independents – said he’s heard from a 65-year-old chaplain registered in the gang database, a 50-year-old preacher in it, and another man who was unknowingly entered in the database after attending a biker’s funeral.

The common threads among all those individuals, Ward said, are they ride bikes and are not in criminal gangs. Texas’ gang database is supposed to help law enforcement agencies exchange information about criminal gangs and their members, but, Ward said, swaths of non-criminals are being erroneously swept into it. That could change if a recently filed bill makes it into law.

“It is a wide net that is collecting a lot of innocent people,” said Ward, who is also president of the Grim Guardians Motorcycle Club. “We want to make sure this tool they are using is well defined.”

Once a person is included in the gang database, it can impact their ability to carry a gun, travel and gain custody of their children, Ward said. It can cost thousands to hire a lawyer to help get removed from the database, and a person can be added without ever being arrested, he added.

Database concerns reach lawmakers

State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, has sought to reform the gang database. A bill she filed in 2021 to overhaul the database’s rules didn’t pass. She refiled similar legislation this year. Gonzalez said she’s hopeful her bill will garner more support, after a 2022 state audit uncovered myriad problems with the database.

State Rep. Mary González speaks on the Texas House floor. (Wes Rapaport/Nexstar)

That audit – which was prompted by a 2021 budget rider backed by Gonzalez – found thousands of records in the gang database weren’t validated within required timeframes and many records lacked sufficient information to determine when they were last validated.

“We’ve heard for a long time now that there needs to be some revamping or some reworking of the Texas gang database,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody agrees it’s a tool for law enforcement, but the tool just needs to be sharpened, or it just needs to be kind of be reworked, so that it doesn’t have unintentional consequence.”

State leaders have made gang crime a top priority in recent years. Gov. Greg Abbott blamed transnational gangs for bringing drugs like fentanyl into the state. In September, Abbott issued an executive order classifying Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and directing the Texas Department of Public Safety to “identify, arrest, and impede the gangs in Texas that support the drug and human smuggling operations of these foreign terrorist organizations.”

In 2018, state law enforcement estimated there were more than 100,000 gang members in Texas, according to a DPS “Texas Gang Threat Assessment” produced that year. The report’s gang threat ranking included one biker group, “Bandidos OMG,” in its rankings in the second tier.

A 2018 Texas Gang Threat Assessment report by DPS ranked Texas' largest gangs by threat level. The top tier includes four gangs: Tango Blast, Texas Mexican Mafia, MS-13 and Barrio Azteca.
A 2018 DPS report ranked Texas’ largest gangs by threat level. The top tier included four gangs: Tango Blast, Texas Mexican Mafia, MS-13 and Barrio Azteca. Source: Texas DPS

DPS maintains the gang database, but law enforcement agencies across the state input the records and use it. The system was created in 2000. In mid-2021 the database had more than 71,600 records associated with over 10,800 gang organizations, according to the state audit.

Notification and removal

Gonzalez’s bill would require departments to notify people within 60 days that they have been placed in the gang database. The notification would need to include an explanation of how to make a dispute. Departments would also need to post that information on their websites.

The bill would stop database information from being used to determine employment eligibility, limit any Texas or U.S. constitutional rights or limit the ability to obtain any federal or state license, permit or benefit.

If her bill passes, the state auditor would conduct an annual audit on the database, and the relevance of information older than 10 years would need to be substantiated or removed. The audit would need to include a racial and demographic analysis of people in the database and show whether they’ve been included for more than five or 10 years, according to the bill.

When a law enforcement agency is notified a person may be incorrectly included in the database, the agency would need to review the information to see if it violates the law and if probable cause exists to show the record is valid, according to the bill. If the information used to place the person in the database isn’t valid, or violates the law, the agency would be required to destroy the records and notify the person who requested the review, Gonzalez’s bill states.

The proposed law also sets new timeframes and rules for requesting and conducting a judicial review of a person’s inclusion in the database, and individuals could be removed by renouncing their gang membership.

Gonzalez’s bill is similar to the one she filed in 2021. That bill passed the House but ground to a halt in the Senate, according to legislative records.

Representatives of two of the state’s largest police unions – Texas Municipal Police Association and Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas – registered against Gonzalez’s bill but didn’t testify at a House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee hearing in April 2021.

Jennifer Szimanski, Director Public Affairs for CLEAT, said her organization is “opposed to eliminating this tool or any other tool that assists in various types of criminal investigations.”

Gonzalez said she supports the continued use of the database and law enforcement’s efforts.

“We’re not trying to pass a bill to say get rid of the database. We’re trying to pass a bill that says we need a database that is accurate, that is fair and that is just,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said the outcome of a 2022 state audit of the gang database could bolster support for her bill by showing the need to revise its rules.

State audit finds problems

Auditors uncovered more than 5,000 records were uploaded to the gang database without the required information, and 1,000 records that weren’t validated within the last five years, which is a federal requirement.

The database’s information is fed by individual departments. Counties with over 100,000 people and cities with more than 50,000 are required to send information, according to the audit.

The audit also found more than 5,700 records in the database lacking information required by federal law, such as the name of the reviewer, the date the record was reviewed and the reason for retaining the record. Without that information, auditors said they couldn’t determine if the records were validated correctly.

Law enforcement agencies are required to review gang entries of juveniles every two years and adults every five. Validation includes reviewing court records and supporting documentation to determine if a person should remain in the database.

Following the audit, DPS told KXAN it was identifying law enforcement agencies to begin “working with them one-on-one to address identified deficiencies” and also working with the vendor operating the system, Database Projects Group, to meet legislative requirements and address issues from the audit.

Gonzalez said the law could be amended as it moves through the Capitol, and KXAN will be monitoring and reporting on its progress.