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Met Police using 'racially discriminatory' Gangs Matrix database

The Metropolitan Police Service’s ‘Gangs Matrix’ is the “wrong tool for the wrong problem” Amnesty International said today, as it published a damning report into the little-known gang-mapping database.

The 55-page report, Trapped in the Matrix, raises serious concerns about how individuals come to be placed on the database, how the information is shared with other agencies such as housing associations and schools, and the adverse effect being listed on the Matrix can have for the young black males who are disproportionately impacted. The researchers spoke to more than 30 professionals who use the Gangs Matrix, including the police and other organisations, as well as community members and young people affected by the Matrix.

The Gangs Matrix

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, 3,806 people were listed on the Matrix. More than three-quarters (78%) of people on the Matrix are black, a disproportionate number given the Met’s own figures show that only 27% of those responsible for serious youth violence are black. The youngest person on the Matrix is 12 years old, and 99% of those listed are male.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s Director, said:

“There is clearly a huge problem with knife crime violence at the moment in London, but the Gangs Matrix is not the answer. It’s part of an unhelpful and racialised focus on the concept of gangs. Put simply, it’s the wrong tool for the wrong problem.

“The entire system is racially discriminatory, stigmatising young black men for the type of music they listen to or their social media behaviour, and perpetuating racial bias with potential impacts in all sorts of areas of their lives.

“Some police officers have been acting like they’re in the wild west, making the false assumptions that they can set up fake profiles and covertly befriend people online to monitor them without needing the appropriate search warrants.

“The Mayor of London needs to dismantle the Matrix unless he can bring it in line with international human rights standards.”

The ‘G word’: An unhelpful and racialised focus on the concept of the gang

The concept of ‘the gang’ and a gang member, or ‘nominal’, is vague and ill-defined, and based on racialised notions, the report finds. 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 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.

One Met Police officer told Amnesty:

“Gangs are, for the most part, a complete red herring… fixation with the term is unhelpful at every level.”

The vagueness of the ‘gang’ label, and the large degree of discretion given to officers in assigning it, mean that the gang label is haphazardly used. In practice, it 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.

Stafford Scott, from The Monitoring Group, a London-based campaigning organisation which challenges racism in policing, argues that the Gangs Matrix is counterproductive and further erodes trust in and the legitimacy of the police.

He told Amnesty:

“Our community needs a police service to stop the murders, but the community won’t engage with the police if they’re forever coming up with oppressive forms. The Matrix reaffirms to the community that there is an institutionalised racist way of policing. It doesn’t work, it just further marginalises this group of kids.”

Getting on the Matrix

The report uncovers a chaotic and inconsistent approach to how individuals come to be listed on the Matrix, which varies wildly from borough to borough in London. The report warns that the threshold for getting added to the Matrix is very low, requiring just two pieces of “verifiable intelligence” with no clear guidance or criteria, while very wide discretion is given to both police and various other agencies. ‘Partner agencies’ - including housing associations, job centres and youth services at the borough level - can also put forward names to be added to the Gangs Matrix.

Individuals who have never been involved with violent crime are routinely registered to the Gangs Matrix. Even being a victim of a crime that the police link to a gang is viewed by the Metropolitan Police as an indicator of a likelihood of “subsequently becoming drawn in to involvement in serious crime” and so can result in the individual being placed on the Matrix.

Social media monitoring and racial profiling of young black men

The report raises serious concerns about the practice of monitoring young people’s behaviour online to determine possible gang affiliation. The sharing of YouTube videos and other social media activity are used as potential criteria for adding names to the Matrix, with grime music videos featuring gang names or signs considered a particular possible indicator of likely gang affiliation. Amnesty’s research raises concerns that people are therefore being profiled and monitored by police Gangs Units simply because of the subculture to which they belong and the people with whom they associate online.

Amnesty’s research uncovered instances of police officers 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 (RIPA). Amnesty’s researchers were told that on at least one occasion, no RIPA warrant was obtained before undercover operations were carried out. One official even stated that they thought no such warrant was required because the profile created was linked to a council modem.

The report concludes that in the case of police officers “friending”, or otherwise forming an online relationship with a potential person of interest, a covert human intelligence source authorisation (a warrant) is clearly required. Amnesty is calling for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to urgently review the operation and the use of the Matrix by police and others.

Sharing the Matrix with other agencies

The report found that a range of non-police agencies have access to the Matrix, and so the stigma of suspicion or guilt related to inclusion on the Matrix can follow individuals through their interaction with a wide range of local services, including with job centres, housing associations and schools.

Data sharing may lead to negative outcomes in other areas of individual’s lives, such as in their access to housing, with both a former housing officer and a member of staff at a Borough Gangs Unit describing the issuing of eviction notices as a routine tactic used to put pressure on a ‘nominal’. This not only affects those on the Matrix but, in the case of housing, also their siblings and other family members. Again, these negative impacts disproportionately affect young black boys and men.

Amnesty is particularly concerned that the broad sharing of the Matrix with partner agencies raises a number of conflicts with the Data Protection Act and accompanying Code of Conduct and guidance.

Trapped on the Matrix

Officials reported a general pressure from the police in the Gangs Units to “keep people on” the Matrix in case they later went on to commit a violent offence. The report found the processes surrounding review of inclusion on the Matrix inadequate given the sensitivity of the data held, including on children as young as 12.

Amnesty is calling for the ICO to urgently open a full public investigation into the Matrix and its use, including whether it complies with data protection laws. Amnesty is also calling for Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to respond to the concerns raised in the report, with a view to scrapping the Matrix if it cannot be brought in line with international human rights standards.

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