Met 'may be overly targeting BAME youths as gang members'

London force could be mislabelling youths, leading to harsher treatment by criminal justice system, MP David Lammy finds in review for PM

The Metropolitan police may be overly targeting black and ethnic minority youths as gang members, resulting in them being treated more harshly by the courts, prisons and justice system, a review has found.

The concerns centre on figures showing nearly 90% of youths classed as gang members by Britain’s largest force are black or from other ethnic minority backgrounds (BAME) – which is considerably in excess of their proportion in the population.

The review is being led by the Labour MP David Lammy and was ordered by David Cameron when he was prime minister. The work continues despite the change in Downing Street.

Concerns centre around the Met’s database of gang suspects, called the gangs matrix. Figures for 2016 show that of the 3,626 people listed on that database, 78% were black and a further 9% were from other ethnic minority backgrounds. Ethnic minorities make up 40% of London’s population.

The figures cover people known to be in a gang, suspected of involvement, or at risk of joining a gang. Lammy said the effects are that someone can get a longer sentence and be treated more harshly throughout the criminal justice system.

In a speech, he said some cases may be mistaken, with youths wrongly labelled as gang members not knowing how to be cleared of the stigma.

Speaking in London last Friday, Lammy gave the first clues as to the direction in which his review is heading. He said: “We have, therefore, a journey through the system in which suspected gang membership can affect decisions at each turn, from charging, to conviction, to sentencing, to treatment in prison and rehabilitation in the community.

“And we have the gang matrix as the source of much of the information used by other actors in the justice system. Prisoners I have spoken to in both adult prisons and youth offending institutions have often been frank about their involvement in criminality.

“But the same people have often also been insistent that they were mislabelled as gang members by the police and then subsequently by the rest of the justice system.”

For the Met’s figures to be correct, there would have to be 360 white gang members across all of London’s 32 boroughs.

The issue was referenced by Theresa May when she took office last Wednesday. In her speech outside 10 Downing Street she highlighted racial discrimination in the justice system and said: “If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.”

Lammy gave the example of a parent who adopted one black and one white child. Both got into trouble and enmeshed into the criminal justice system. “But it was the black child who had wrongly been tagged with the label of ‘gang member’ and the label had stuck,” the MP said. “The parent and his adopted son had no idea how to remove the label – and his name from the gangs matrix.”

Lammy added: “One member of a youth offending team told me that her team would routinely make decisions based on the information they were given about gang membership.

“Decisions, she said, were being made without challenging where the information came from, or whether it was reliable and up to date.”

The full report is expected to be given to May early next year. Lammy’s inquiry is being staffed and supported by civil servants in a sign of how seriously the government is taking it.

Lammy said gang members carry out half of all shootings in the capital and he said many victims came from ethnic minority backgrounds. But the MP added: “But the concern I have heard – repeatedly I must say – is that young people from ethnic minority backgrounds are also being tagged with the ‘gang’ label in ways they do not feel is justified; and that this tag can have real consequences for the way the criminal justice system deals with those individuals.”

Lammy is the MP for Tottenham and Wood Green – the seat of riots in 2011 that spread to become the worst in modern English history. Cameron’s claims that gangs were behind the disturbances was overplayed, with strained relations with police and other social factors playing a part.

Lammy said: “When four in five people on the gangs matrix are black – and that database currently informs decisions throughout the criminal justice system – it is something that someone in my position has a duty to scrutinise closely.”


Vikram Dodd Police and crime correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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