Police gang strategy 'targets people unlikely to commit violence'
The Metropolitan police strategy to tackle gangs appears to have caught up a significant number of individuals who according to secret police assessments do not pose a danger of committing violence.
Under the so-called gang violence matrix, suspected gang members are given a score assessing how dangerous they are and can be targeted for “Al Capone-style” disruption tactics.
According to an assessment seen by the Guardian, more than 40% of young people on a list from Haringey in north London are scored as posing “zero” risk of causing harm. Some are assessed as being much more likely to be victims than offenders. The data also shows the majority of those registered on the matrix are young black men.
It is the first gang violence matrix to be seen outside the police and their partners, allowing the first informed public debate about the tactic.
The Guardian has also learned that the information commissioner has launched an investigation into the matrix to see if it breaches laws covering the use of data.
The Met says the scores are based on intelligence they consider reliable from two sources. With political backing, it says the matrix helps to thwart violence, saves lives and can help prevent people from being drawn into gang violence.
Critics say those on the matrix can be subject to punitive measures across the public sector, covering employment, housing, driving licences and education. They also say the role posed by gangs in violence is inflated and a US-style model is being imported to the UK with no evidence that it is needed.
Police felt they needed better tools to deal with gangs following the 2011 riots that spread across England after starting in the Tottenham area of Haringey. The then Conservative-led government blamed gangs for the violence, despite police believing only a minority of those involved were in gangs.
The list seen by the Guardian assessed 85 people in Haringey suspected of gang activity, so called gang nominals, and was carried out in 2016. Those on the list were given a score based on how much danger they posed and their chances of being a victim.
Seven people on the matrix were assessed as posing a high risk of causing harm – meaning committing violence. Twenty-eight were assessed as medium riskand 50 as posing little or no risk.
There were 37 individuals with a matrix harm score of zero, including two with a score of 0.32.
Fifteen of the individuals in the database were considered more likely to be a victim of crime than cause harm, and one person had not committed any offences in five years.
The Met said: “The gang violence matrix is an intelligence tool used to identify and risk-assess gang members in every London borough. It is informed by intelligence, but it is primarily based on violent offences. The overarching aim of the matrix is to reduce gang-related violence and prevent young lives being lost.”
Stafford Scott, a veteran community activist from Tottenham, said: “Clearly these people should not be on this database, but they are and this fact is shared right across the system. For the local authorities, simply being on the gang matrix is taken as evidence of a person being a gangster.
“Once labeled as such, all services to this individual and his family is slowly withdrawn. This is what is helping to create an environment where black youths are so disenfranchised and angry that they are resorting to ever-increasing levels of violence. They feel that they have nothing to lose and they are right.”
Similar gang violence scoring systems are believed to be in use by forces covering Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. Across London, about 3,800 people are on the gang violence matrix.
Few would see anything improper in police keeping intelligence on violent gang members with convictions for crimes that blight communities and cause public alarm, but the inclusion of so many young people without such convictions has caused concern about intelligence-gathering and the use of tactics that co-opt the public sector.
Critics say those on the gang matrix face punishment away from the criminal justice system, such as having to promise in order to get a driving licence that they are not using drugs.
The Guardian revealed in 2016 that the vast majority of people in London suspected of gang involvement were black. Figures for 2016 show that of the 3,626 people listed on the gang matrix, 78% were black and 9% from other ethnic minority backgrounds. Ethnic minorities make up 40% of London’s population.
Police say hundreds of people have been taken off the matrix by showing they have turned away from gang activity.
In a statement, the Information Commissioner’s Office’s deputy commissioner for operations, James Dipple-Johnstone, said: “We are in contact with the Metropolitan Police Service as part of an investigation into their use of a ‘gang database’.
“As part of this, we’re considering how the database is used and if any aspects of it constitute a breach of the Data Protection Act. At the conclusion of our investigation, we will communicate any resulting recommendations and enforcement actions.”
Amnesty International is expected to publish a report on the gang matrix shortly.