Death Knell for Police Gang Lists

The time has come to call an end to the use of ‘gang’ lists, such as the MET Police Gangs Matrix. There is sufficient data to challenge the assumed relationship between serious youth violence, as a pressing issue of harm in society, and the policing of gangs. We argue here that rather than support an effective solution to youth violence, such policing strategies contribute to injustice, a lack of trust in the criminal justice and perpetuate the harms caused by the over-policing and under-protection experienced by young people from racialised communities.

Last year the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee  published data which demonstrated that less than 5% of serious youth violence is actually ‘gang related’.Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 15.52.09

‘Serious youth violence in London is often considered a ‘gang issue’…The MET’s data shows that the gang element was identified in a relatively small amount of serious youth violence: just under five per cent in 2015-16. This figure has been fairly consistent since 2011-12.’ (LAPCC, 2016; p3)

Source: Metropolitan Police

Such findings, now substantiated in both Manchester and London, contest the simple associations maintained in the dominant narrative about ‘gangs’ and youth violence. Yet both local strategy and national policy, remains fixated with tying the solution to youth violence as a strategy of ‘fighting gangs’. We would argue that this conflation is a political manoeuvre, whereby criminal justice agencies and politicians are able to both (re)define the problem of youth violence and create objects to be policed.

Some individuals and groups are calling out against this conflation, and demanding effective responses to the harms of youth violence. Equally urgent is the need to halt the the ill-defined and racialised war on ‘gangs’ and to do this we must actively dismantle the legacy of policing the ‘gang’.

The ‘war on gangs’ in England has a history and context, which is inherently tied to the policing of the black community specifically, and the ‘other’ more generally From London to Manchester the ‘gang’, as imagined by the CJS agencies, is black. 3 sitesThe policing of gangs means policing a suspect community, a community defined by ‘blackness’ of neighbourhoods and culture, but not reflecting their likelihood of perpetrating youth violence. This tied to a collective memory which endures in those pursuing the gang, the police, and in the communities who have disproportionately experienced the policing response.

In recent years the distinct approach to policing gangs has borne a growing industry. With a number of resources and tools now synonymous with the exceptional approach to policing gangs. The Matrix, or ‘gangs list’, lies at the heart of these.

The forerunners of the police ‘Gang Unit’, such as Trident in London and Xcalibre in Manchester are now almost 20 years old.


These approaches have always been constructed within a partnership model, or to use the current language, ‘integrated (gang) management units’. Yet, inevitably, they are driven by politicised agendas and police priorities, with politicians constructing the problem and the police defining the object to be policed.

While the politician can make a sweeping claim, laying the blame of the latest social ill at the feet of the ‘gang’, the local agencies are tasked with identifying the individuals and communities to be policed. Central to the work of the Police Unit then is the definition of the ‘gang’. In the last decade there has been much activity to establish an agreed and accepted definition of the ‘gang’, yet this remains elusive. With changes to official definitions often reflecting political priorities rather than any clear evidenced or theorised approach. For example, the most recent changes made in June 2015 saw the Home Office ‘amend the statutory definition of a gang to make it less prescriptive and more flexible’, with the explicit aim of making it easier for the courts to grant the (then) new policy response, the gang injunction.

These ‘flexible’ definitions drive the registration or flagging of individuals on a gangs lists. In London this is the Matrix, other towns and cities where a gangs unit or response is also in place will have one. It is a list or database of names, often supplemented by a gallery of photographs placed on the walls of a police station or partnership office. Almost all of those will be black or brown faces.

The key questions are – on what basis does a name appear on the list? How, if at all, do you get removed or deregistered? What are the consequences of being on the list?

Increasingly such databases contain algorithms , used to determine the inclusion or status of the individual within the wider database. However, regardless of the assumed objectivity of such processes, ultimately the police intelligence and decision making are subjective. Further, they are driven by the specific investment into the gathering of intelligence and the making visible of particular individuals and communities. Current examples of this might be the creation of a police role to scan social media accounts of young people, or the use of technologies such as face-mapping deployed at community events .

The MATRIX then lies at the heart of an ongoing commitment to a distinct approach to the policing of a racialised community, overwhelmingly young men who are black and black mixed-race. What do we know about who is on the list? Remembering that currently these practices are concealed and unaccountable, understanding comes from small pieces of local analysis that have made it into the public domain, through Freedom of Information requests, and anecdotal evidence. Importantly though we can answer the following three questions. Do you need to have to be convicted of a crime? No, there are individuals on the Matrix and flagged in Manchester who have no criminal record. Do you need to present a risk of violence or harm? No in both London and Manchester many individuals are classed as ‘low risk’, ‘green’ or have a ‘zero’ harm scores. Do you need to be a gang member? No. Discussions with practitioners in Manchester revealed that individuals were being flagged by association, although such distinctions are not reflected and as such the dragnet of criminalisation extends according to other familial and social links, not criminal behaviour.

It is largely unknown due to the concealed nature of the lists whether, once on the list, an individual be removed or deregistered. But interviews with CJ practitioners in Manchester in 2012 suggested tensions in the views held regarding how long an individual might be on the list and what opportunities there are to be deregistered. One police officer remarked ‘once a gang member, always a gang member unless they prove otherwise’, whilst another indicated the importance for agencies to focus on current situations, rather than historic events – ‘What happened 5 years ago doesn’t matter. If we haven’t seen them on the street then he isn’t a problem to us’. Crucially though, there was not a process for deregistration. More recent discussions with practitioners suggest that the lists or ‘flags’ are left on cases indefinitely, including on partner systems.

We know that there is a spreading of the use of ‘gang’ lists and flags beyond the criminal justice setting. In fact this information sharing has in and of itself become a key measure of the success of national gang policy. An FOI in 2015 reported that Job Centre’s across London have a greater number of ‘flagged gang members’ (3,934 individuals) than the MET have on the matrix. The sharing of such information is questionable in relation to individual privacy laws and reflects a legalised process of discrimination whereby access to housing and employment is blocked as a result of being on the gang list.

The consequences of being labelled a ‘gang member’ are multiple and significant, for both the individual and their families. In Manchester we have seen the increased use of ‘Threat to Life’ notices (previously Osman warnings) in the context of policing gangs. In some cases these have lead to police and their partners removing children on the basis of police intelligence. In a recent case a local judge publically called into question the use of police ‘gang’ intelligence in a family court where social services were looking to remove two brothers from their family on the basis of an older brother’s ‘gang’ involvement. He argued that the

‘court has no way of assessing how reliable or otherwise the police intelligence is’.

Judge Iain Hamilton 

If only more judges were more circumspect about the use of police ‘gang’ intelligence we might see a halt to the continued and disproportionate injustice of Joint Enterprise convictions. Our work in 2016 demonstrated how the narrative of the ‘gang’ becomes a central strategy for prosecution teams to secure joint enterprise convictions even where defendants are not at the scene of a crime. A recent case in Manchester reflects the hallmarks of this process. The prosecution called a member of the police gang unit as an expert witness, who talked the jury through the history of gangs in Manchester and their connections to gangs in Los Angeles. This is regardless of the fact that most of the young people had no previous convictions and the intelligence connecting them to gangs were dubious: disputed photographs, music videos or family connections in racialised neighbourhoods.

These issues are complex and contested, yet it is clear that a deep injustice is occurring in the use of such gang lists. Many individuals and groups are coming forward keen to whistle blow on discriminatory practices which are an everyday occurrence, including retired police officers and serving judges. Yet the Institutional pressure wins out and concerns are brushed aside. Whilst Sadiq Khan has committed to a review of the MET Trident Matrix, we would urge him and others to be braver. To recognise the damage done by this process as well as their ineffectiveness in addressing the problem of harms and violence faced by young people.

In the US the Portland Police Bureau announced that it would end its policy of documenting people as gang members, in what experts say appears to be the first such move by a police department in recent years’ . The arguments made for this move echo all of the concerns raised here of discriminatory practices based on disputed intelligence. Critics of the move make the unfounded claims of such lists being necessary for public safety, but proponents cite the potential benefits of greater legitimacy and trust in strategies that focus on actual violence and harm.

As captured in this article, US lawsuits taken by those on gang databases demonstrate this as a human rights issue, that a violation of rights and privacy leading to further discrimination is unlawful. The same challenges can and should be levelled at such police practices in the UK. We would therefore argue that rather than a review of one such list, the MET police Matrix, we should be calling for an end to the use of all such gang databases.

Blog Author Becky Clarke, Twitter: @beckyjoyC 

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