Families and young people came together at Bells Gardens Community Centre in Peckham last week to debate the controversial Gangs Matrix database used by police across London.
At the group discussion, organised by Southwark’s anti-knife crime forum, representatives from the London Mayor’s office explained how and why youths can be named on the database and the impact it can have on their lives.
City Hall is currently reviewing the database after concerns raised by charity Amnesty International that the system for identifying ‘gang’ members and those at risk is institutionally racist and ‘the wrong tool for the wrong problem’.
According to its Trapped in the Matrix report published in May this year, Amnesty International highlighted that officers need just two pieces of ‘intelligence’ to add someone to the database of gang members and potential members. This information can then be shared with other agencies from housing associations to schools and even job centres.
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s director, 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 is 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.”
The database was launched in 2012 in response to the London Riots the previous year and lists supposed gang members with a corresponding violence ranking.
In October 2017, 3,806 people was listed on the Matrix, and 78 per cent of them are black – even though according to official Met figures, just 27 per cent of serious youth violence offenders are black. Ninety per cent of people included on the database are male, with the youngest just twelve.
Just two pieces of ‘verifiable information’ are needed for someone to find themselves on the matrix, but how this is defined in theory, and in practice, is unclear. The database includes known perpetrators – but also victims.
Most worryingly for parents and young people, there is no way of knowing whether your name is on the database and who is privy to that information.
At the meeting, youth worker Alika Agidi-Jeffs told the News: “The Gang Matrix has existed for a long time now and knife crime has only got worse.
“So what is different about it this time that we think it will work?
“Let’s call the ‘gang members’ what they are. If someone is willing to kill and then go and get chicken and chips, that person is a psychopath.
“And if you have a list of people you think are about to become serial killers – why are we not getting involved sooner?”
Later on, in open discussion, he shared his concerns that the matrix would fail to distinguish between hardened criminals and their grooming victims – or just friends on the periphery.
“Are you guilty by association?” he asked. “In an area like Walworth and Peckham it makes you think that you can’t have any friends.
“Inevitably you are around the same people; same estate, classroom, same chicken shop.”
Mr Agidi-Jeffs is a leading voice in Southwark for police, local government and the NHS to take a new approach to violent crime by dealing with it as a public health crisis, rather than an enforcement issue – where violence is treated like an infectious disease that spreads from one person among their community.
In a response to Amnesty’s damning report, the Met said the matrix scores gang members from both a victim and offender perspective – including those who have not yet been drawn into gang violence but are at risk. It also said the style of music someone listens to ‘has no bearing’ on whether someone is on the database, but posting music themselves which glorifies violence can be used as an intelligence source.
However, concerns about the system are leading to a review by the Mayor’s Office, and Southwark’s anti-knife crime forum is keen to hear the experiences and concerns of people across the borough to help input into the review.
The Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, Sophie Linden, said: “The Mayor is doing everything he can to protect young Londoners from becoming caught up in crime and violence.
“He committed to reviewing the Metropolitan Police Service Gangs Matrix in his Police and Crime Plan and in his Knife Crime Strategy for London.
“That review is currently underway and will report back later this year.”