Research and action for fair and accountable policing

About Twitter Instagram Facebook Donate

Being Matrixed – The (Over)policing of gang suspects in London

Report authored by Dr Patrick Williams, senior lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University

Executive Summary

It is undeniable that the media, police and political focus on street crime, urban gangs and youth violence has become more prominent over recent years. This increased attention has an impact on the criminal justice system, policing practices and the communities being policed. With the racialised perception of a gangs normalised, it is little surprise there is an over policing of the black community. Black men are bearing the brunt and feeling oppressed as they are surveilled and their movements curtailed. Infringing people’s rights, police intelligence tools and police conduct can often contribute to alienating people and fostering animosity. With stop and search a frequently used policing power and often the first point of contact many young people have with the law, it plays an integral role in the formation of an individual’s attitudes toward the police. Without the confidence and trust of a community, effective community policing is near impracticable. Considering the intrusive and historically contentious nature of stop and search and recent misinformation which seeks to justify calls for an increase in stop and search, through conflating serious violence with gangs, it is timely to explore how being labelled a ‘gang nominal’, placed on the Gangs Matrix and subjected to an enhanced level of policing and multi-agency interventions impacts on individuals.

Responding to the civil unrest that took place in 2011 across London and other cities in the country, the Metropolitan Police Service and former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, introduced the Gangs Violence Matrix in 2012. The Gangs Matrix is a database, containing the names and personal information of people suspected to be “gang nominals”. Underpinning the database is a set of algorithms that use an established scoring criterion to generate an automated violence ranking for individuals. Each person receives a ranking classification of either red, amber or green. Controversial at the time of its inception, the database was created as an intelligence tool that monitors and manages people identified to be involved in criminal activity. It has continued to gain notoriety over the years with critics highlighting its blatant racial disparity. In Amnesty International UK’s recent report, Metropolitan Police data from October 2017 shows that there are 3,806 people on the Matrix, of which over three quarters (78%) are black. In contrast, according to other Metropolitan Police data only 27% of people accountable for serious youth violence are black.

Critics also have grave concerns about the lack of transparency and oversight around the actual process of how people are added to and removed from the database. Alarmingly, the findings from the Amnesty report reveal that approximately 40% of the people on the Matrix are not recorded as being involved in violent crime yet are subject to enhanced police scrutiny. The seemingly unrestrained sharing of information between statutory agencies, education institutions, potential employers and voluntary and community organisations also poses problems as the gang member label acts as a red flag and results in detrimental consequences for the person that is meant to be receiving ‘support’ to cease criminality. Unfortunately, the overrepresentation of black men in the criminal justice system, as highlighted by The Lammy Review last year, is not a new phenomenon and key to addressing this issue is a need for recognition from the State and wider society that tools such as the Gangs Matrix play a role in preserving the current status quo.

The research for this report was commissioned in a response to the anecdotal evidence StopWatch gathered though its community outreach engagement work with grassroots community organisations and individuals. For nearly a decade StopWatch has consistently raised concerns about the rate of ethnic disproportionality in stop and searches and the damaging effect that discriminatory over-policing has on an individual and a community. To address these concerns, politicians and police have advocated for an increase in targeted intelligence led stop and search.

Key messages

Contrary to the mainstream narrative, the negative attitudes that the respondents have towards the police are not a result of their early childhood interactions with the police but rather stem from the stop and search encounters they experience as older children and teenagers.

The stop and search encounters experienced by respondents indicate a deficit in knowledge and understanding by police officers about their statutory obligations to children in their care. This disturbing lack of awareness about the importance of ensuring and safeguarding the welfare of children adversely impacts on an officer’s ability to positively and effectively engage with children.

Statutory agencies and to some extent families are unaware of the high level of violence that young people living in socio-economically deprived areas or attending troubled schools experience. Perceived to have little protection, many young people are victims of crime; despite living fearful and traumatic lives they are not receiving the necessary therapeutic support.

The deliberate racialisation of ‘gangs’ is driving the over-policing of the black community. The respondents all contested that they were part of a gang and posited that they were being labelled due to living in a specific area and associating with certain people.

People on the Gangs Matrix are subjected to multiple stop and search encounters which seemingly lack any legal basis. This relentless searching without a demonstrable legitimate purpose is an intrusive form of surveillance and harassment that directly impacts on the trust and confidence people have toward the police.

Rather than preventing criminal offences, stop and search has the potential to increase offending behaviour, as people being repeatedly stopped and searched may lose their temper and consequently be arrested for a public order offence.

Despite knowing their rights and the law, respondents essentially feel powerless during a stop and search encounter. The lack of professionalism and absence of any respect and courtesy from officers combined with their lack of due regard for the rights and civil liberties of the person stopped and searched only acts to further fuel the negative relationship that young black men often have with the police.

The label ‘gang nominal’ adversely impacts the opportunities available to people on the Gangs Matrix. The multi-agency approach designed to assist ‘gang nominals’ is not transparent, and information is being widely shared without consent of the person at the center of the intervention. This conflating of social welfare services with the criminal justice system needs to be addressed as it results in perverse outcomes and breaches peoples’ rights to non-discrimination, privacy, family life, liberty and security.

Support our work

Any amount we receive helps to support us in our mission and keeps us independent


Sign up to our newsletter

For regular updates on our activities and to learn how you can get involved with us