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Reform the police, don’t deform the police

The Met Police’s Gangs Matrix might have been flawed but it served an important purpose

In March 2023, drill rap fans excitedly awaited the return of genre legend T.Scam from the group AGB, who was scheduled to drop a new freestyle. The song emerged, featuring the kind of gruesome lines that fans expected. “Just seen [censored] bro put it in reverse/If he tripped up woulda put him in a hearse.” “And to add to the sickness/My man’s mum was a witness.” Nice.

But the freestyle did not cause a splash for its lyrics. Hours before it was supposed to be released, T.Scam was arrested. Not only was he arrested, he was arrested for allegedly participating in the drive-by shooting of a group of mourners who had been attending a funeral — an incident which left women and children seriously injured. This week, Tyrell “T.Scam” La Croix was found guilty of conspiracy to wound with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

Months after La Croix’s arrest, his fellow AGB rappers and gang members Tariq “Suspect” Monteiro and Siyad “Swavey” Mohamud were convicted of murdering 16-year-old Alex Smith. The pair had murdered Smith in 2019 and gone on the run to Kenya from which they had been extradited in 2022.

If, theoretically, a schoolboy began to be associated with members of AGB, should that be of interest to the state? They might not have a criminal record themselves. Of course, it is no crime to hang around with the wrong people. But is it worth following?

I ask that because this week the Metropolitan Police announced that it was scrapping its controversial “Gangs Matrix”. The database of alleged gang members and associates had faced criticism from Liberty, Amnesty International and other organisations from being discriminatory and unfair.

Some of the criticisms sounded valid to me. Amnesty International’s 2018 report “Trapped in the Matrix” illuminated cases of people who were not removed from the database despite having no plausible gang connections. Relatedly, there was, Amnesty wrote, a “stark absence of clear protocols or agreed practice for review and for removing individuals from it.” These are undoubtedly serious problems.

Yet there has been an undercurrent of denialism among critics of the Gangs Matrix that risks guiding whatever replaces it into dangerous directions. They don’t like the concept of a “gang” being the focus of police attention at all.

It is certainly a tricky one. The Amnesty report contains sad testimonies from young men whose friendship groups have been falsely stigmatised as “gangs”. That is wrong and harmful. Moreover, the report accurately observes that most violent crime in London, and even most knife crime, has nothing to do with gangs. Violence comes in many forms.

Yet multiple things can be true at once. That young people are unfairly suspected of being in gangs does not mean that gangs do not exist. That violence comes in many forms does not prevent this from being a serious one. 

The Amnesty report heavily emphasises the “disproportionate” representation of young black men on the gang database, writing: 

Whereas a minority of serious youth violence incidents are committed by black individuals, an overwhelming majority of those deemed responsible for gang violence were black.

Perhaps, but what about the most serious of crimes? According to a 2022 report, more than 60 per cent of suspects and victims in cases of teenage homicides were black. More than half of these homicides were gang-related. Gang-related crimes, in other words, tend to be more serious — not always “shooting up a funeral” serious, but more serious nonetheless.

The Amnesty International report gets very exercised about this claim: “35 per cent [of people on the Gangs Matrix] have never committed any ‘serious offence’.” Okay, sure. But we know that gangs groom children into working for them — with free meals, money and the promise of social status — and British institutions have to identify them before they commit or fall victim to serious offences. Once it is obvious that they are of interest to the police, in other words, it might be too late. 14-year-old Corey Junior Davis was talked into keeping drugs on behalf of older men, for example, and his involvement escalated up to the point where he was shot to death in Newham in 2017. 

parents, schools and the social services are in no position to assess the criminal associations of young people at risk

Now, is this to say that the police have been doing a good job of shielding young people? No. Indeed, a Serious Case Review concluded that Davis and his family had been failed by state institutions. But young people like him have to be identified somehow, and as much as this should involve parents, schools and the social services as well as the police, parents, schools and the social services are in no position to assess the criminal associations of young people at risk.

The Amnesty report dwells on elements of the police’s intelligence gathering as if they were self-evidently preposterous. “The idea that I am in a music video and because of that I am affiliated with a gang, that is ludicrous,” one young man is quoted as saying. Well, it depends on the music video. The average rap video? For sure. But if it is the music video for a song by a gang member about committing violence against other gang members, it is in the interests of the police to take notes on who appears, not least because it can make them a target for reprisals.

Again, it seems obvious that the Gangs Matrix was flawed. One hopes that the new “violence harm assessment”, whatever it turns out to be, will be an improvement. But the police should not be hobbled by unreasonable limits on good intelligence. The difference between good and bad intelligence is not academic, after all — it could be the difference between criminals being stopped in their tracks and a funeral party being sprayed with bullets.

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