Controversial Gangs Matrix database 'not the answer' to violent crime wave

A secretive police gangs database containing details of 1,500 people who score zero for risk of violence is under investigation by the data watchdog.

Scotland Yard's Gangs Matrix holds information on around 3,800 people, around 40% of whom have a harm score of zero.

POLICE Violence
(PA Graphics)

A report by Amnesty International, published on Wednesday, concluded that the database breaches international human rights law.

The charity's UK Director Kate Allen 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."

Amnesty found that the number of black men on the Matrix is disproportionate. Figures from July 2016 showed that 87% of the people listed were black, Asian and minority ethnic, and 78% were black.

For London as a whole, 13% of the population is black, and police figures show 27% of those prosecuted for youth violence are black.

In terms of age, 80% of those on the database were between the ages of 12 and 24, and 15% were minors, the youngest of whom was 12 years old. Males accounted for 99%.

The report claimed being on the Matrix could affect access to services such as housing, education and the job centre.

Researchers heard some families were threatened with eviction if a young person did not change their behaviour, and one was sent an ultimatum more than a year after their son had died.

There are no "clear processes" for reviewing or updating the database, or challenging the inclusion of a name, and no definitive list of who is allowed access to the information, it said.

Amnesty called on the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) to examine whether the database breaks data and human rights laws.

The Matrix was set up in 2012 in the wake of the wave of rioting that hit London and several other parts of the UK in the summer of 2011.

Police gather various intelligence including history of violent crime, entries on social media and information from bodies including local councils to identify gang members, then use a secret algorithm to calculate a risk of harm score set on a traffic light scale.

Figures from October 2017 showed the whole Matrix contained 3,806 entries, with 5% in the red category, the highest risk of committing violence, and 64% in the green, the lowest.

Forty per cent - 1,501 - had a harm score of zero, meaning they had no record of charges or police intelligence linking them to violence in the past two years.

ICO 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 'gangs database'.

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Kate Allen says the Gangs Matrix could breach human rights (Yui Mok/PA)

"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 also called on the influential Commons Home Affairs Select Committee to investigate the use of police gang databases across the country. It is understood that officers in Nottingham, Manchester and Birmingham gather similar information on gang links.

Scotland Yard said the aim of the database is to "reduce gang-related violence and prevent young lives being lost".

The force issued a statement that continued: "Some young people identified as part of a gang may not yet have been drawn into gang violence. These individuals will be offered support to divert them away from activity that may result in either violent offending or them becoming a victim.

"The scoring system on the matrix is subject to specific timescales, which means nominals convicted or linked to violence can score zero outside of these timescales. A number of those with a zero score may also be in custody therefore not currently offending."

It said that only selected information is given to other bodies such as local councils and the details are treated as confidential, with representatives signing an agreement not to share the data.

The statement went on: "The style of music that someone listens to has no bearing on whether someone is placed on the matrix. However, evidence that someone is glorifying gang violence in a music video posted on social media can be used as an intelligence source.

"In relation to suggestions of potential racial disproportionality of the matrix, the MPS has actively engaged with David Lammy MP, Amnesty International and the Information Commissioner's Office to help understand the approach taken, and we remain committed to ensuring the safety of all Londoners, and especially those most at risk from gang and other violent crimes."

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