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The Met 'gangs matrix': Institutional racism in action

Lee Bridges, Professor Emeritus (School of Law, University of Warwick) and StopWatch founding member, examines the ethnic composition of the Metropolitan police’s gangs database

In October 2014, the Met police disclosed information[1] on the ethnic composition of its ‘gangs matrix’ or database, showing that no fewer than 78.2 per cent of 3,422 persons then included were classified as black and a further 8.7 per cent from other minority ethnic communities. The full ethnic breakdown was as follows:

It is interesting to note how ethnicity is defined. While four of the six categories are geographically based, with ‘whites’ being divided between Northern and Southern European origins, no such differentiation is made for either ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ people on the database, both being taken as blanket categories based purely on race or ethnicity.

But what is even more remarkable is 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 auto theft) and extortion; football hooliganism; and racist violence, these figures are simply not credible.

More recent data, released in March 2015 in conjunction with the announcement of a Met anti-gangs initiative, Operation Shield (see below), show that the numbers on the gang database had increased to 3,600, spread across 186 ‘recognised gangs’.[2] This means that the average number of members of each ‘gang’ was less than twenty. In other words, many of the so-called gangs do not consist of wide networks of members but of relatively small groups of individuals involved in criminal activity. Once again, this is a description that would apply to many groups in the wider population engaged in criminal activity but apparently not included on the gangs database.

All of this raises serious questions about how the gangs matrix has been compiled in the first place. Here the Met say that the database ‘is informed by police and wider statutory partner intelligence, based on violence, criminal offending and gang membership. Individuals are added to the matrix from police and partner agencies so the matrix is not just informed by police and is a wider partnership document.’ The identity of the so-called ‘partner agencies’ has not been disclosed, nor is it clear what proportion of those on the gangs database have been included on the initiative of these agencies.

Equally, the term ‘gang’ remains undefined, even though mere ‘membership’ of or association with a ‘gang’ appears itself to be sufficient for inclusion on the database, even without the individual concerned having been convicted of any serious violent or other criminal offences. Research conducted in Manchester,[3] where the gang database was 89 per cent black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME), found that 21 per cent of those included had not been recorded as being convicted of any offence within the previous three years, and that a further 21 per cent had ‘no antecedents … on either the Police National Computer (PNC) or any other CJ [criminal justice] case recording/ monitoring database’. The study concluded that the ‘only credible explanation’ for this latter group was that ‘these people have never been convicted of a criminal offence’.[4] As for the Met, it has been disclosed that only just over a third of those included on its gangs matrix ‘are currently subject to judicial restrictions such as gang injunctions, ASBOs [anti-social behaviour orders], electronically (sic) tagging and managed under license [whilst on probation following release from prison]‘.[5] This suggests that, as found in Manchester, the database contains significant number of people who have not previously or recently been convicted of any serious criminal offence.

Institutional racism

The ethnic composition of the gangs matrix and similar databases is not simply an issue of bias in the way such instruments are compiled. As the police themselves turn increasingly to so-called ‘intelligence-led’ operations, at a time of reduced manpower and resources, these databases feed directly into the ways in which policing policies and priorities are being targeted on particular groups. In other words, the racial bias in the databases becomes institutionalised in police practice.

For example, while overall levels of stop and search have been reduced in the last few years, it is now being particularly focused (for example, under the Met’s total policing strategy) on those alleged to be members of gangs. This is supported by the code of practice governing the use of stop and search, a new version of which has only recently been published.[6] The code of practice states that the fact that a person is known to have a previous conviction ‘cannot be used, alone or in combination with each other, or in combination with any other factor, as a reason for stopping and searching any individual, including any vehicle which they are driving or being carried in’. (emphasis in original)[7] Yet, the code goes on to allow that:

Where there is reliable information or intelligence that members of a group or gang habitually carry knives unlawfully or weapons or controlled drugs, and wear a distinctive item of clothing or other means of identification in order to identify themselves as members of that group or gang, that distinctive item of clothing or other means of identification may provide reasonable grounds to stop and search any person believed to be a member of that group or gang.[8]

A further note states that ‘[o]ther means of identification might include jewellery, insignias, tattoos or other features which are known to identify members of the particular gang or group’.[9] The implication of this is that it allows the police to stop any persons who wear the clothing style or regalia allegedly associated with a particular gang, but which may be more widely adopted by young people within an area, even though many such persons will not have recent or serious criminal convictions or be associated in any meaningful way with the ‘gang’ in question.[10]

For its part, the Met has recently launched Operation Shield in three London boroughs – Haringey, Lambeth and Westminster – all with relatively high BAME populations. Under Operation Shield, a form of collective punishment will be introduced, under which when one member of a ‘gang’ commits a violent offence, action will be taken to punish all alleged members of the gang (no doubt as identified on the ‘gangs matrix’[11]) through a series of criminal and civil sanctions, including recalling to prison any on probation and subject to license, applying for ‘gang injunctions’ to restrict their movements to certain areas, and even evicting them (and members of their families) from social housing. As the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, states, ‘It is time we gave gang members a clear ultimatum – the police know who you are and if anyone in the gang steps out of line then every member will face consequences’.[12]

Mission creep?

The institutionalisation of gang data also extends beyond the police to impact on the practices of other criminal justice agencies. Allegations of gang membership or association are frequently used by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as part of its prosecutions in court, especially in cases of ‘joint enterprise’ taken against groups of individuals. As with the gang databases, research has shown that prosecutions and convictions under the doctrine of joint enterprise are disproportionately skewed toward members of the BAME communities.[13] Yet, it is open to question how far the CPS – let alone the courts themselves – interrogate such data, passed onto them by the police, in terms of its accuracy and substance. As one of the criminologists involved in such research told the House of Commons justice committee:

BME men may be over-represented in the kinds of communities where young men hang around in groups that are labelled by outsiders as gangs … [and] an association may exist unconsciously in the minds of the police, prosecutors and juries between being young ethnic male and being in a gang, and therefore being involved in forms of urban violence.[14]

Indeed, the data showing the exceeding high BAME representation on police gang databases would indicate that such bias can hardly be described as ‘unconscious’.

The key question to be raised about gang databases is therefore whether they constitute ‘reliable information or intelligence’ (to borrow a phrase from the stop and search code of practice) on which to base policing policies and practices, as well as those of other criminal justice agencies. Certainly, in light of the fact that such databases are overwhelmingly skewed toward members of the BAME communities, it is incumbent on all those making use of such databases, including those who are intended to hold the police and other criminal just agencies accountable, to explain why this is the case. We need to know exactly what definition of a ‘gang’ and criteria of membership or association with it are being used in compiling such databases, as well as whether these are being applied consistently by the various ‘partner agencies’ involved in the process. Equally, is the policy of having gang databases being applied consistently, if at all, over the whole of the policing areas involved, or only to those areas with high concentrations of BAME populations? For example, what is the distribution of gang members, as currently identified through the Metropolitan police’s gangs matrix, across the different London boroughs? And what proportion of those on this database have records of serious and recent criminal convictions?

Without answers to these questions, the presumption that gangs databases and the policing policies and practices that utilise them represent a clear example of institutional racism will remain. Indeed, there is a strong case for suspending their use as the basis of such policies as ‘targeted’ stops and searches, let alone for special operations such as Operation Shield. which so clearly involve collective and potentially indiscriminate punishment.

By Lee Bridges

Professor Emeritus (School of Law, University of Warwick) and StopWatch founding member

This article was first published by the Institute for Race Relations, which is available here


[1] Metropolitan Police Freedom of Information Request Response, October 2014. 

[2] Ibid. 

[3]Patrick Williams, ‘Criminalising the Other: challenging the race-gang nexus’ Race & Class (Vol. 56, No. 3, 2014), January-March 2015. 

[4] Ibid., p. 29. [

5] Metropolitan Police, op. cit. 

[6] Home Office, CODE A Revised – Code of Practice for the exercise by: Police Officers of Statutory Powers of stop and search (London, TSO (The Stationary Office), 2014). 

[7] Ibid., para. 2.2B 

[8] Ibid., para. 2.6. 

[9] Ibid., Note 9. 

[10] It would hardly be reasonable for the police to routinely stop and search all those wearing regalia associated with particular football teams on the grounds that some members of that group are known to engage in violence relating to football hooliganism. Yet, when it comes to the regalia associated with so-called 'urban gangs', such blanket targeting of members of the black and minority ethnic communities may be deemed appropriate for police operations. 

[11] Metropolitan Police, op. cit. 

[12] Ibid. 

[13] For a summary and discussion of this research, see House of Commons Justice Committee, Joint enterprise: follow up, Fourth Report of Session 2014-15 (London, House of Commons, 10 December 2014), para. 24. 

[14] Ibid., quoting Dr. Ben Crewe of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology.

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