The Gangs Matrix – Racialised Policing & How Lawyers Are Pushing Back

The Gangs Matrix – Racialised Policing & How Lawyers Are Pushing Back

By Sheryl Nwosu
17 August 2020

Introduction

The Metropolitan Police Service’s (MPS) Gangs Matrix is a database held by the MPS on which they list the names and personal details, amongst other information, of suspected “gang nominals” living in the capital.

The Matrix was formally created in 2012 and its creation was a clear political reaction to the 2011 London riots; in the aftermath of the riots the then Mayor of London and now Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “there are problems in society…there are particular issues about gang crime and what we’ve got to do is use with this opportunity to deal with it…” continuing that “…there’s no doubt about it, it was the gangs who were leading off the problem and who were leading off the assaults on the shops”1.

This declaration was completely unsupported by the Met Police’s own statistics showing that of those arrested as a result of the riots, the vast majority were not identified as gang members with only an estimated 19% being thought to be gang members2, and the criminality in the riots, in London at least, was not found or said to be gang related nevertheless in the year following the riots the Gangs Matrix was introduced as a tool the MPS stated it would use to identify, list and risk-assess the most harmful gangs in London and their gang members involved in gang violence and offending.

The Matrix is informed by so called police ‘intelligence’, and those listed on the Matrix are labelled “gang nominals”. Each London borough’s police Command Unit has its own localised Matrix for which they are solely in charge of adding and removing names. The names from each borough’s Matrix are then centralised into the main London wide Gangs Matrix.
The MPS maintain that the aim of the Matrix is to reduce gang-related violence, safeguard those exploited by gangs and prevent young lives being lost3.

As of 2nd July 2020 there were 2,498 individuals or ‘nominals’ on the Gangs Matrix with 990 of them being in custody; there were 6 girls or women, with the remaining 2,496 (99.9%) being identified as male; 80% of those on the Matrix were recorded as being from an African or Caribbean background4, 9.6% were recorded as White European5, 5.3% were recorded as Asian6, with remaining being recorded under the descriptors ‘dark European’, ‘Arabian / Egyptian’ or ‘Oriental’7. Further the stats show that over 73% of people recorded were 25 years old and under.

Disproportionality

The large numbers of Black and or mixed race Black boys/men recorded on the Matrix is of constant concern to practitioners who are becoming increasingly used to having police officers include in their evidential statements presented in court by the prosecution for sentencing purposes or even in evidence at trial, assertions of alleged gang membership or affiliation based on a person being recorded on the Gangs Matrix.

These assertions can change the whole complexion of an allegation or case, can lead to higher sentences being imposed where an offence is deemed as ‘gang activity’, and can mean other restrictive penalties, for example Criminal Behaviour Orders, which are now frequently pursued by the prosecution where gang membership has been alleged in a case, are imposed, and so perpetuate the disproportionately harsh outcomes for Black males in the justice system which are well documented8.

The disproportionate number of Black males on the Gang Matrix illustrates in my view one of the overriding problems with the tool, one which is glaringly obvious if you have even only the faintest idea about crime and criminality in London (which most lawyers living or practising in London do): the numbers speak more to the over-criminalisation of Black males in areas of London than actually representing a true picture of criminal or even gang activity on the capital.

As was commented by Lee Bridges, Professor Emeritus (School of Law, University of Warwick) and founding member of the StopWatch organisation9 when commenting on the ethnic make-up of the Matrix in 2014 (when 439 of the 3,422 people recorded were recorded as ‘white’):

“…that the Met could claim that there are only 439 white people in the whole of London who are engaged on an organised basis in ‘violence, criminal offending and gang membership’, which is the purported basis for inclusion on the database. Once account is taken of such organised criminal activities as drug-dealing; sex and people trafficking; multi-handed robbery; fraud; theft (including car theft) and extortion; football hooliganism; and racist violence, these figures are simply not credible”10.

profile_sheryl_nwosu

Sheryl Nwosu

Sheryl is a brilliant trial advocate who is routinely instructed in the broad spectrum of serious criminal cases. Sheryl has appeared as leading junior counsel, sole counsel and led junior in cases of varying complexity and seriousness. She has considerable experience in cases of homicide and serious violence, firearms offences, large scale drugs importation and conspiracy cases as well as serious sexual offences. She also has experience as a led junior on large fraud trials.

"She has a great ability to think on her feet in court and adapt her advocacy style to the witness before her, making her an excellent cross-examiner."
Legal 500 - 2020.

Racialised policing

To ignore the other forms of organised criminal activity which is rife in the capital and which involves violence begs the question why does it appear as though a particular spotlight is being placed on specific pockets of youth and young adult offending?

A review carried out by officers in the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) in 201811 identified that the representation of young, Black males on the Matrix was “disproportionate to their likelihood of criminality and / or being a victim of crime” and lay and legal critics of the Matrix, including myself, continue to call out the overrepresentation of Black (African and Caribbean heritage) and Mixed Black males on it.

In my view this disproportional representation of young Black males is unsurprising and represents a continuance of the historical trend of the racialised and over-policing of predominantly Black communities in London. This trend results in the over-criminalisation of those same communities and at the very least helps to preserve the state of the strained relations between parts of that community and the police.

The Met Police have consistently defended the value of the Matrix on the basis that it helps them to prevent crime and also protect vulnerable people from coming to harm. This overlooks the fact that for some parts of the young Black male community in London, their vulnerability to becoming a victim of crime is exacerbated exactly because they feel constantly targeted and labelled by the police so that they do not view the police as an institution designed to protect them, nor do they view police officers as people who they can approach if they are in fact victims of crime.

Another criticism of the Matrix is the lack of clarity surrounding reasons for inclusion on it. Known reasons include being seen by the police in company with alleged ‘known gang members’, or based on presumed gang affiliation based on police monitoring social media activity (including participating in YouTube music videos), or having been a victim of a crime that the police link to a gang so that the police believe that a person will ‘subsequently become drawn in to involvement in serious crime’.

It is not difficult to imagine how such subjective determinations can lead not only to an inconsistency of approach, but also to young Black people being unfairly labelled and stigmatised as so-called gang nominals simply because of his (or her) social (and/or social media) circles and participation in prevailing youth culture. In my view that unfairness manifests more acutely against young people especially who tend to socialise within groups determined by proximity such as living proximity or attending the same schools and for whom youth sub-culture, including music, often driven by social media, is the binding agent between groups of young people rather than involvement in any criminal activity.

Practitioners and lawyers such as myself are alert and alive to the unfairness of the Matrix in action and how it stigmatises some young people and in particular those from the Black community; it is a point of practice for me to always argue, often successfully, against the admissibility of alleged gang membership evidence in cases where the prosecution want to rely on Matrix membership, social media activity or friendships / association within local areas etc as a stepping stone to suggesting a person is connected to a gang and thus any offence they are alleged to have been involved in as “gang activity”.

In my view this energy and pressure must be kept up all round by individuals making applications to find out if they are on the Matrix and then if possible challenging their inclusion, and by lawyers such myself and those at LegalLifelines challenging the assertions of gang membership and labelling of alleged offending as “gang offending”.

Policing in London is supposedly by consent, which includes a recognition that the police’s power to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval, including approval of their actions and behaviour; the ongoing public fight against racism which includes systemic as well as individual racism must therefore include the fight against racialised policing and thus provides reason enough that so-called “gangs” evidence based wholly or partly on Matrix membership and any other detrimental assertions made by the police are rigorously scrutinised and vigorously challenged by me in courtrooms as part of that fight.

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  1. https://www.channel4.com/news/boris-johnson-calls-for-action-on-gangs-and-illiteracy
  2. https://www.statewatch.org/media/documents/news/2011/oct/uk-riots-ho-report.pdf at p.19
  3. https://www.met.police.uk/police-forces/metropolitan-police/areas/about-us/about-the-met/gangs-violence-matrix/
  4. 1,995 people;
  5. 240 people;
  6. 133 people;
  1. “Dark European” – 71; “Arabian /Egyptian” – 59; “Oriental” – 0;
  2. See: The Lammy Review 2017 An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the Criminal Justice System – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/lammy-review-final-report
  3. StopWatch is a coalition which aims to address excess and disproportionate stop and search, and which promotes best practice and effective policing for all.
  4. https://www.stop-watch.org/news-comment/story/the-met-gangs-matrix-instituional-racism-in-action
  5. See: MOPAC Review of the Metropolitan Police Service Gangs Matrix – December 2018