stopwatch matrix
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Controversial Met police gang matrix is counter-productive

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StopWatch report: constant searching of ‘gang nominals’ is an intrusive form of surveillance that directly impacts on the trust and confidence young people have toward the police.

Being Matrixed

There is no date that applying artificial intelligence to big data can bring many benefits in many sectors; health and disaster prevention being two of the most obvious.

Using the same approach in criminal justice is proving much more controversial. The developers of a whole range of algorithms to predict risk and reoffending emphasise the statistical rigour and empirical nature of their tools. Those on the other side of the argument say that too often the tools embed already existing and pernicious forms of discrimination, particularly on race and social class grounds.

This brings us to the subject of today’s blog post: a summary of a new report by police monitoring organisation StopWatch into the Metropolitan Police’s reliance on their gang matrix system for identifying likely gang members.

Being Matrixed: The (over)policing of gang suspects in London is authored by Dr Patrick Williams and argues strongly that the Met’s approach is counter-productive:

StopWatch branded constant searching of ‘gang nominals’ without legitimate grounds, an intrusive form of surveillance that directly impacts on the trust and confidence young 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.

 

What is Matrix?

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 percent of people accountable for serious youth violence are black.

The research

The StopWatch report is based on 15 in-depth qualitative interviews undertaken by Dr Williams. The research examined two areas in particular: interviewees’ early childhood experiences and perceptions of the police and their experience of being “matrixed”.

Childhood reflections

Beginning with their early recollections of police encounters, interviewees described initially having a positive attitude and helpful experience of the police. As they grow older their stance begins to change and the issue of stop and search, especially their first direct encounter, becomes a recurring theme with it identified as the catalyst for the onset of their negative relationship with the police.

In particular, interviewees’ experience of how they were stopped and searched the first time was critical with issues such as the lack of any obvious reason, the attitude of the police officers conducting the stop, how many police officers were involved and the degree of physical roughness used.

Interviewees spoke about being afraid, ridiculed and humiliated and living in a constant state of alert and fear when out in public.

Being Matrixed

Those individuals who are on the matrix and therefore subjected to daily stop and searches quickly develop a mutually antagonistic relationship with police officers. Being on the Matrix appears to lead to the majority of police officers presuming that individuals are inherently bad people and can be treated with much less respect than other members of the public that they might stop. This over-familiarity both breeds contempt on both sides and causes those on the Matrix to feel that society has already written them of. If an individual is on the Matrix, this information is routinely shared with a wide range of other agencies, affecting people’s housing, education and training prospects and having a negative impact on families and friends. 

Key messages

The report reaches seven key conclusions:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 and only acts to further fuel the negative relationship that young black men often have with the police.
  7. 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 breached peoples’ rights to non-discrimination, privacy, family life, liberty and security.

 

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