It is entirely right that the Metropolitan Police has been hit by the toughest sanction short of a criminal prosecution by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) as innocent people were included on a ‘poorly managed’ list of suspects and gang members.
The database – called the Gangs Matrix – was shared with other agencies but did not make it clear which people posed a serious risk of crime and which people listed were completely innocent.
Police and officials in each of London’s 32 boroughs collect and manage local databases which then feed into the London-wide Matrix system.
It includes personal details, criminal records, intelligence on links to gun or knife violence and a rating of how dangerous each individual is thought to be.
This database is said to have played a key role in helping police solve a wide range of serious crimes in London. Figures from the Mayor of London say almost half of suspects charged in relation to 100 killings in the capital were on the system.
However, it was also found to contain the details of ‘a considerable number’ of innocent people who may have been victims of gangs themselves, or even informants, with a ‘a risk score of zero’.
This was because the system was ‘unclear and inconsistently applied across the boroughs’, with some continuing to monitor people even when intelligence had shown that they were no longer active gang members.
The ICO also said serious breaches of data protection laws had ‘the potential to cause damage and distress to the disproportionate number of young, black men on the Matrix.’
The dangers of innocent people being included on this list, being wrongly linked with criminal gangs or as potential informers, and that information then falling into the wrong hands, are unthinkable.
Our civil liberties team at Hudgell Solicitors have been contacted by people affected, who quite understandably been left fearing for the safety of both themselves and their families, and worried about the possible impact on their lives going forward.
Letters sent from Met Police units to those affected
The ICO says the matrix, which was created after the 2011 riots, has been poorly managed since its inception and has constantly failed to properly differentiate between dangerous offenders and their victims.
The details have been shared with other agencies such as social services, housing authorities and education as part of an ‘Al Capone’ attempt to disrupt gang members by targeting them for lesser matters.
One of the people to contact us, a 28-year-old man from London, received a letter from the Met Police’s Newham Gangs and Firearms Unit which simply asked him to get in contact with the force as soon as possible.
It is hard to imagine opening a more frightening letter, one which many people may have recently received.
Having contacted the force he and his family were informed of his name being circulated on the list and they have now been offered panic alarms in their homes.
It is a truly shocking situation, a clear breach of data protection, and therefore it is quite right that the ICO has ordered the force to overhaul how it manages and shares the data.
This cannot be allowed to happen again.