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The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has removed more than 1,100 people from its controversial gangs violence matrix and committed to a “complete redesign” of the system in the face of imminent legal action.
The MPS’s decision to redesign the secretive gangs matrix database – which is used by the force to identify, monitor and target individuals it considers to be involved in gang violence – follows a legal challenge by human rights group Liberty, which was brought on behalf of musician Awate Suleiman and community interest group Unjust UK in February 2022.
The case was due to appear in the Royal Courts of Justice sometime in the week commencing 14 November 2022, but the MPS has instead agreed to carry out a complete overhaul of the database, and has already removed more than 1,100 people from the matrix, or 65% of all those listed.
On top of infringing human rights and data protection legislation, Liberty has long argued that the operation of the matrix breaches the right to private and family life, as the MPS’s broad sharing of personal data with a variety of third parties puts those affected at significantly greater risk of over-policing, school exclusion, eviction and, in some cases, deportation or welfare benefit denial.
It has also argued that the matrix discriminates against people of colour, particularly black men and boys, who are massively overrepresented in the database.
The MPS has now admitted that black people are disproportionately represented on the matrix, and that efforts to address this have not worked, with the latest review of the database showing that 80% of those named were black. Of those convicted of offences related to serious youth violence, just 27% are black.
Origins of the gangs violence matrix and how it works
After the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police in 2011, a series of riots erupted across England, beginning in Tottenham. In the immediate aftermath of the unrest, David Cameron’s government declared its “war on gangs”, who were said to be responsible for orchestrating the riots.
No subsequent reviews, including those by the MPS itself or the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel set up by Cameron, have ever been able to confirm any of the assertions made by senior government figures at the time that gangs were responsible.
Nevertheless, the political imperatives were clear, and by early 2012 the gangs violence matrix was operational.
When individuals are placed on the matrix, they are assigned an automated risk score, known as a “harm score”, based on police information about past arrests, convictions and any other relevant intelligence.
Once a harm score has been assigned, each so-called “gang nominal” is then labelled as red, amber or green. Those with a red label are deemed most likely to commit a violent offence, while green nominals pose the lowest risk.
However, an Amnesty International report from May 2018, titled Trapped in the matrix, found that 40% of people on the matrix at the time had a harm score of zero, meaning the police have no record of them being involved in a violent offence, while 64% of all individuals were labelled green. It also found that 75% of the individuals had been a victim of violence themselves. Less than 5% of individuals were marked as red.
“We recognise that to prevent crimes and protect the public, the police have extraordinary powers. It is our duty to use these responsibly and right that our methods are scrutinised. We acknowledge that the gangs violence matrix does need to be redesigned, taking into account improvements in statistical methods and technologies,” said MPS commissioner Mark Rowley.
“We know that young men, and in particular young black men, continue to be overrepresented on the matrix. Sadly, there is a reality that levels of violent crime do disproportionally affect young black men – both in terms of victimisation and offending – and our tactics do need to be targeted so we can protect those most at risk. However, it is not appropriate that the matrix further amplifies this disproportionality.”
He added the MPS has worked closely with the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (Mopac) in recent years to improve how the force uses the matrix, which has gone from a peak of more than 3,800 individuals in 2017 to just under 2,000 now. “We are committed to the complete redesign of the gangs violence matrix, informed by further academic research, and will be engaging closely with community groups and partners on this in the next few months,” said Rowley.
The MPS has further agreed that people can apply to be informed if they were included on the matrix, which will only be refused if necessary for limited specified reasons.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – which previously issued the MPS with an official enforcement notice in November 2018 over its use of the matrix after finding an array of problems and serious breaches of data protection law – will be able to review refusals of access to information related to the matrix on request.
Lana Adamou, Liberty
However, Liberty has warned that hundreds of people may never know whether or not their data was held on the matrix in the first place, and is therefore encouraging those who have experienced sustained police attention to submit a subject access request to the MPS under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to find out.
“Having defended this claim for over a year, the Met has now admitted that the gangs matrix is unlawful, and that the way it operated breached the human rights of those who were placed on it,” said Liberty lawyer Lana Adamou.
“People have been added to this matrix simply because of who their friends are, where they live, or because they have been a victim of crime. Once on the list, their data could be shared with third parties including the Home Office, local authorities, the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], housing providers, schools and the DVLA [Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency], leading to really serious and potentially life-changing consequences,” she added.
“As a result of this case, the majority of people have now been removed from the matrix, and those people will be able to ask the Met what data was held about them. Many of those people won’t know that their data was held, so if you’ve been repeatedly stopped by the police, or have any reason to suspect that you might have been on the matrix, we would encourage you to submit a subject access request to the Met to find out.”
Suleiman, who became concerned he was on the matrix after years of being repeatedly arrested for offences he did not commit, described the matrix as “a relic of colonialism, brought back to the home of empire and used against people the Met Police thinks nobody cares about”.
He added that, although Mopac has claimed that being on the matrix leads to less violent interactions and generally improves lives, it has been unable to explain why. “They say their researchers have factored in the effects of just getting older and more mature, moving away from the violence of school and poverty, and taking measures to improve one’s life due to maturity and positive influences,” he said.
“But according to Mopac, those factors definitely aren’t the reason people’s lives improve when they’re on the matrix, even though it destroys lives, opportunities and the mental health of the people on it. And its secretive nature means that anyone can be on it and not know, and the broad net it casts means many people have their mental health damaged and possibilities limited by thinking they are on it.”
Suleiman only received confirmation from the MPS that he was not on the matrix in December 2021, after two years of trying to get an answer.
“Only 5.4% of reported crimes in the UK are solved by the police (lead to a charge which may then be dropped). How is their 94% failure rate a justification to terrorise black people?” he said. “Things like the gangs matrix need to be dismantled and funding needs to be diverted to programmes that improve our lives, not punish us for being poor and neglected by the state.”
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