London mayor Sadiq Khan has ordered a “comprehensive overhaul” of a controversial police database that has been accused of racial discrimination and stigmatising children.
Scotland Yard’s “gangs matrix” was set up after the 2011 London riots and holds the details of up to 4,000 individuals at any one time. Some are as young as 12.
The so-called gang nominal are subjected to coded levels of police activity, which can range from efforts to divert them away from criminality to surveillance, arrests and court orders.
Mr Khan published a review that found that three quarters of those on the matrix were under the age of 25, 80 per cent were black. Many had a zero-harm score – reflecting the lowest risk of committing violence.
“The representation of young black men on the matrix is disproportionate to their likelihood of either causing or being a victim of gang violence and communities have deep reservations about how it operates,” it warned. “Further investigation is to be carried out to understand if this disproportionality is legitimate and to be transparent about this process.”
The Mayor’s Office review recommended that a “comprehensive overhaul of the matrix operating model both to restore trust and also to bring it into line with data protection legislation”.
It criticised a lack of transparency by London's Metropolitan Police over how the system works, and suggested that inconsistency in the way it was used have led to serious breaches of data protection laws.
The Mayor’s Office told the force to implement nine recommendations to ensure the database is used lawfully and with no unjustifiable disproportionality, with stronger processes, oversight and transparency.
Recommendations included annual reviews of the subjects on the matrix, an appraisal of those with a “zero harm” score, removal of people not meeting strict criteria, data processing improvements and police engagement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Scotland Yard has argued that the matrix helps combat violence and make London safer and said that the 7,000 people who appeared on the matrix in a five-year period, 96 per cent have been sanctioned for a criminal offence, including 79 per cent for violence, weapons or robbery.
The review recognised that a gangs matrix was a “necessary law enforcement tool” for reducing violent crime in London.
“The harm of gangs extends further, beyond serious street violence and encompassing other serious issues including violence against women and girls, acquisitive crime and drug supply,” it added. “Those preyed upon by gangs are amongst the most vulnerable children and young people in our city, often from deprived, crime-affected backgrounds and presenting multiple, complex needs such as mental illness.”
Individuals spend an average of two years and four months on the matrix on average, but the review found it appears to have a positive impact on reducing levels of offending and victimisation.
Data on arrests and stop and search indicates that levels of police attention fall after people are removed from the matrix and legal advice said it can be used legally, the review said.
But it also found action must be taken to be fully compliant with the law, including an equalities impact assessment and changes to data handling.
Mr Khan, said: “The review has shown that the gangs matrix can be an effective enforcement tool and is helping to tackle violence on our streets. But to many Londoners, the way it is applied and enforced is a cause for concern and it needs to be comprehensively overhauled to ensure it is used lawfully and proportionately.
“By implementing the review’s nine recommendations, the matrix can address the serious breaches of data protection laws and ensure only those at genuine risk of causing or being a victim of violence are included. It’s important these recommendations are carried out quickly and transparently.”
“It’s a conflation of elements of youth culture with violent offending and that’s heavily racialised,” Amnesty director Kate Allen told The Independent. “It’s difficult to know how people come off the matrix and whether that is effective policing or not.”
An investigation concluded that police were failing to distinguish between the approach to victims and perpetrators of gang-related crime, and sharing information with authorities including councils, schools and housing associations.
It said some London boroughs were using additional informal lists of people who had been removed from the matrix – despite having no intelligence they were gang members.
Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, said: “Simply being on this database could lead to denial of services and other adverse consequences.”
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said the force has accepted the recommendations but does not believe the matrix “directly discriminates against any community and that it reflects the disproportionality of violent offenders and victims”.
A statement from the force added: “We are committed to reducing the disproportionate number of young black men who are victims of gang crime. London and the UK as a whole has experienced an increase in serious violence this year and a significant proportion of this has been attributable to young men in gangs as both offenders and victims.
“The Met needs to do everything it can to prevent violence using proportionate and lawful means, which includes safeguarding and protecting young people. The report clearly shows how the gangs matrix can help to reduce crime and violence within London and the Met is committed in continuing to use it.”