News & Insights
The Metropolitan Police Service has agreed to redesign the Gangs Matrix following a legal challenge by the organisation Liberty. Rachel Pain looks at the implications.
What is the Gangs Matrix?
The Gangs Matrix is a database of suspected gang members and associates in London created by the Metropolitan Police. The database contains personal information which is shared with third parties such as the Home Office, local authorities, the DWP, housing providers, schools and the DVLA. An algorithm is used to provide a ‘risk score,’ which influences how the police and other agencies interact with individuals on the database.
There have historically been issues with the transparency of the contents of the database, including who is on it, what information is held, and who it is shared with. This has made it difficult for individuals to challenge their presence on the database or to correct inaccurate information about themselves. Identification on the Matrix is based on an assessment of the risk of committing violence or becoming a victim of violence. However, inclusion in the Matrix can often appear arbitrary, with some individuals being added a result of associations or the area in which they live.
A third of individuals on the Matrix have never committed a crime, and a 2018 review of the Matrix found that 38% of people listed were assessed as posing no risk of violence. The Matrix contains the information of children as young as 13 and has disproportionately targeted and impacted young black men in particular. 80% of people named on the Matrix are black and 86.5% are from BAME backgrounds.
What impact has it had?
Against a backdrop of the overrepresentation of black people in the criminal justice system, the disproportionality in the Gangs Matrix has likely been a contributing factor in the over-policing of the black community, particularly in relation to increased surveillance and stop and searches. In the current climate of expanding police powers, communities’ concerns about how the Matrix operates have in turn decreased public trust and confidence in the justice system.
The information shared by the Gangs Matrix also directly impacts lives beyond the justice system. Identification on the Matrix can jeopardise an individual’s housing, education, healthcare, and employment. Information shared with schools may lead to expulsion of pupils and information shared with the Home Office can prevent individuals from obtaining British citizenship or lead to deportation. There have been anecdotal reports of inclusion on the Matrix leading to eviction threats when shared with housing associations. It can also become a barrier to opportunities, including employment, and can result in the removal of benefits.
Concerns have also been raised about possible data breaches in the operation of the Matrix. These include the sharing of data in unredacted forms and in disproportionate and unnecessary ways, storing data for longer than is necessary, and the inclusion of inaccurate data.
As a result of these concerns, a number of agencies have campaigned against the use of the Gangs Matrix. Following a recent judicial review claim brought by the organisation Liberty, on behalf of Awate Suleiman and UNJUST UK, the Met has now reached a settlement with the organisation.
The challenge was brought on the grounds that the Matrix is discriminatory in its disproportionate representation of black people, that it breaches human rights since it contravenes the Article 8 right to private and family life, and that it breaches data protection requirements.
The matter was due to be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice this week. However, the Met has now settled the claim, admitting that the operation of the database was unlawful both in being discriminatory and in breaching the right to a private and family life. It has acknowledged the importance of maintaining the trust of the communities it polices and has agreed to remove the majority of individuals – those assessed as low risk – from the database. Further, alongside a review of the current database, a stronger case will need to be made before individuals are added. The focus will now be upon reducing disproportionality and ensuring transparency. Those who request it will therefore now be entitled to be informed what data from the Matrix has been shared and with whom, with limited exceptions.
What Lies Ahead?
The Met has maintained that the Matrix remains a necessary enforcement tool, and thus there will therefore almost certainly be challenges ahead for the redesigned Matrix (and any additional tools introduced) to balance this with improving public trust and the commitment to increased transparency and scrutiny. Although the Met has committed to working with community groups and engaging with academic research, eliminating public concerns whilst the database is still in existence may prove difficult.
Those who are concerned they might have been included on the Matrix and wish to obtain information can make a Subject Access Request to the Met. Further details on how to make a Subject Access Request and a Subject Access Request form can be found on the Stopwatch website: https://www.stop-watch.org/what-we-do/projects/the-gangs-matrix/
The Met’s promised overhaul of the Gangs Matrix is undoubtedly a step forward, but this needs to be the start of a wider look at the policies and systems that are disproportionately affecting minorities within our criminal justice system.
Rachel is a current first six Pupil at Mountford Chambers. Prior to commencing pupillage, Rachel worked in criminal appeals. She has experience in a wide variety of criminal matters and of challenging public bodies.
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