In the first ever report into the Metropolitan Police’s gangs database, known as the Gangs Matrix, our research raises concerns at every level of the process. How people come to be placed on the database - and those people are disproportionately young black men - to how wide sharing of the database might impact all sorts of areas of their lives when they’re on it, from schooling to housing, and the difficulties and lack of transparency in how people are reviewed or removed from it. We found that the Gangs Matrix is not only unfit for purpose - but likely detrimental to the purpose.
I think it’s important to set out how we came to undertake this particular piece of research – which actually resulted from conversations with Met Police officers about the use of new and evolving technologies and data storage in policing - and how these technologies interact with human rights. The Gangs Matrix came up again and again in discussions, and eventually the concerns we kept hearing led to this report being developed.
The Metropolitan Police Service’s gang-mapping database, known as the Gangs Matrix, was launched in 2012 as part of a highly-politicised response to the 2011 London riots. It lists individuals as “gang nominals” with each given an automated violence ranking of green, amber or red.
As of October 2017, there were 3,806 people listed on the Matrix. More than three-quarters (a total of 78%) of people on the Matrix are black. That is a disproportionate number given the Met’s own statistics show that only 27% of those responsible for serious youth violence are black.
This disproportional impact on young black men is central to our concern. The ‘gang’ label is disproportionately assigned to black men and boys, even where an individual’s offending profile is otherwise the same as a white individual who is not so labelled. This reflects a historic pattern of over-policing of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.
Indeed, time and time again police officers and other people who use the Gangs Matrix said that the use of the ‘G word’ was unhelpful and pointed to the racialised focus on the concept of the ‘gang’. Police officers raised concerns with Amnesty researchers about the conflation of gang crime with serious youth violence, even though in reality there is not as much overlap as presumed. The Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime found that, in actual fact, more than 80% of all knife-crime incidents resulting in injury to a victim aged under 25 in London were deemed to be non-gang-related.
It’s important to say that of course the Metropolitan Police have an obligation to protect people in London from serious crime. In a context where both serious youth violence and knife crime are on the rise, tackling violence should be a clear policing priority for the Metropolitan Police, requiring both effective intelligence-gathering and law enforcement tactics. This includes having the ability to track individuals involved in prolific violence.
However, police data collection on “gangs” sweeps up a much wider group of people than those who are actually involved in serious or violent offending.
The police must be given the powers to do their job, but they must also do it in a way that does not discriminate against people based only factors such as the colour of their skin, the postcode where they grow up or the way they express their identity – for example, sharing grime music videos on YouTube which use gang names or signs, which is apparently considered an indicator of possible gang affiliation. Police must judge people on their criminal actions, not on their associations.
We were concerned to learn that in some instances police officers were setting up fake social media profiles to monitor people they view as possible gang members. That practice may in some instances be in breach of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
The report concludes that in the case of police officers “friending”, or otherwise forming an online relationship with a potential person of interest, a warrant is clearly required and police officers did not know that to be necessary.
Amnesty is calling for the Information Commissioner’s Office to urgently review the operation and the use of the Matrix by police and others – and to set up a public inquiry to do so.
Because of unrestrained data sharing between the police and government agencies the stigmatising ‘red flag’ of being on the Matrix appears to follow people through their interaction with other service providers, from housing to education, and to the job centre.
Amnesty is concerned that these data sharing practices may have a wider serious impact on the rights of those listed on the Gangs Matrix, perpetuating a cycle of exclusion that leads to the further overrepresentation of black boys and men in the criminal justice system whilst narrowing their horizon of opportunities across access to housing, education, training and employment.
We believe the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan needs to urgently address this issue, and make sure there is a comprehensive and transparent review of the Matrix. If it cannot be brought in line with international human rights standards, then it must be dismantled.