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Amnesty Report - enforcement-led response to youth crime criminalises delinquent behaviour

The Metropolitan Police’s Gangs Matrix is a database of individuals involved in gang activity, so-called gang nominals, across the capital. Trapped in the Matrix, a new report from Amnesty International, is a comprehensive review of the Gangs Matrix. It highlights a policing tool that appears to be both ineffective and discriminatory and covers a range of concerns including:

  • Racial profiling
  • Lack of consistent policy and practice regarding data sharing across local multi-agency partnerships
  • Risk assessment processes which conflate elements of urban youth culture and link them to gang association
  • The potential for innocent people to be criminalised with no clear framework to find out why they are on the matrix or how to get their name removed

Some of the data in the report illustrates the inequities built into the system:

  • 72% of those flagged for gang-related violence are black while 27% of recorded serious youth violence incidents are recorded as committed by black young men
  • 78% of people on the matrix are black
  • 80% are 12-24 year olds
  • 35% have never committed a serious offence
  • 75% have been victims of violence themselves

The matrix was conceived prior to the riots of August 2011 but was then accelerated by the Met and London Mayor Boris Johnson. Understanding the context and the policy and political drivers after 2011 can give us a better understanding of some of the causes to the current increases in violent crime and what we need to do in response to address those causes.

Previous crises, such as the riots of the 1980’s and the deaths of Stephen Lawrence and Zahid Mubarek, saw quite liberal responses, with independent judge-led enquiries that recommended placing an emphasis on engagement, inclusion and prevention. The response in 2011 was far more punitive. The `war on gangs’, as the then Mayor of London framed it, was at the heart of this, and black and minority ethnic young people have subsequently had worsening outcomes throughout the justice system.

The response was, and still is, enforcement-led. The recent media debate around youth violence has generated a lot of comment from political and police leaders suggesting the need for prevention, working with communities and public health approaches. The reality is that tough enforcement is still the primary vehicle in addressing youth crime.

Within this context understanding the experience of BAME children and particularly black young men is crucial. Their experience of the justice system has deteriorated since 2011. The Children’s Rights Alliance England, through Freedom of Information requests, obtained the following statistics with regards to children and the Met Police:

  • Stop and search – although its use has fallen overall, the tactic is used disproportionately on BAME children in London. Over half (54%) of all stop and searches in 2016 were BAME children (with the disparity starkest in relation to black boys and young men who accounted for 37% of all stops and searches)
  • In 2016 at least 540 children in London were subjected to `more thorough’ or `strip searches’. BAME children accounted for 71% of these intrusive searches
  • In 2016, 8275 children were detained overnight in Met custody. Nearly two thirds of these children were from BAME backgrounds (with black children accounting for 41% of the total).
  • When Tasers were introduced in 2008, Met officers used them 9 times on children. Yet in the first 9 months of 2016 Tasers were used 118 times (including being fired five times.) Nearly 70% of these uses in 2016 were on BAME children

There is no clear evidence for the current rise in violence and homicides in London but at BTEG we would contend that with around 60% of perpetrators and victims being black that their negative experience of the justice system and the adversarial relationship they have with the police, and the state generally, is a contributing factor. A public health approach to violence prevention has been bandied about by politicians and senior police officers but, with a majority of victims and perpetrators coming from black communities, little is mentioned in effectively targeting this group with regards to prevention and early intervention. Instead the onus is on more enforcement which will, in our opinion, be ineffective and further erode police/community relations.

If we are to address the root causes of violent crime we have to put prevention, community engagement/involvement and early intervention at the forefront of our thinking and action, and stop the criminalisation of children and young people. Adopting the recommendations of this report from Amnesty International to halt the gang’s matrix would be a good place for the Mayor of London to start.

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