Will Sadiq Khan’s Election Make a Difference to the Policing of London’s ‘Gangs’?

by Harry Stopes

20 May 2016

Operation Shield, Boris Johnson’s controversial scheme for dealing with ‘gang crime’, was piloted in three London boroughs starting last January. The scheme has finished, and Sadiq Khan has given no indication of whether he intends to roll it out across the city, but police have already been applying the principles and methods of Shield outside of the pilot boroughs. Shield is racist, disproportionate, and needs to be challenged.

Shield (referred to in press reports and some official documents as Operation Shield) was a partnership between the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), the Metropolitan police, and the London boroughs of Haringey, Westminster and Lambeth. It was announced in January last year by former mayor Boris Johnson as a pilot programme to reduce gang-related violence among young people by applying the Group Violence Intervention (GVI) model first used in Boston in 1996. It was concluded at the end of March. MOPAC’s formal evaluation will be published at the end of this year.

The GVI works on the premise that authorities should respond to gang violence by targeting the gang as a whole. It effectively proposes collective punishment, both criminal and civil, when any gang member commits a violent offence. At the same time, the local community is mobilised to articulate an anti-violence message, and partnerships with charities and other organisations are used to provide support for those who want to leave the gang. A MOPAC spokesperson told me Shield had improved partnership working between police, boroughs and other organisations and that “anecdotally” violence is down.

There’s an obvious objection to Shield’s foundational premise of collective responsibility for the crimes of individuals. What’s more, its implementation was dogged by confusion on the part of those supposed to put it into practice. In February 2015 a Lambeth police sergeant invited to speak at a public meeting on Shield admitted by email that he had no idea what it was. Around the same time, a meeting of the adults, health and public protection policy and scrutiny committee of Westminster council remarked: “We are still establishing the feasibility of applying the model in Westminster.” Five months later, “discussions to agree the scope and timing of the pilot in Westminster” were still ongoing.

Minutes of the July meeting of the local Shield board in Lambeth show that some members were already raising doubts about the effectiveness of a ‘one size fits all’ model. Haringey withdrew from the pilot and although Lambeth continued (despite a report to the contrary in the Guardian), doubts endured. In September one member of the board told the meeting: “We are tied to a flawing operating model and as a result have slavishly adhered to it for seven months before reflecting on its effectiveness. Is it not time to adapt to meet the needs of Lambeth, the local environment and culture?”

Maybe London just isn’t violent enough. GVI was originally developed in a city then averaging roughly the same number of murders annually as London, with a population one sixteenth of the size. MOPAC decided to include non-fatal violence within the Shield pilot, an approach for which the model was not developed. In November after a ‘trigger incident’ in Lambeth when someone was stabbed, the police had no relevant intelligence on which they could take action, so the “collective enforcement [which the model calls for] was limited to non-payment of fines and street high-visibility policing. This challenges the value of this element of the model,” the board heard.

Practical questions aside, the biggest problem with Shield was that it was based on a construct – that of ‘the gang’ – which has little evidential basis and rests ultimately on racist stereotypes. A study of the way gangs are evoked in joint enterprise trials found a marked contrast between the presence of young black men on police gang databases, and the actual culpability of that cohort in violent crime. 72% of the people identified as gang members by the Metropolitan police are black, against only 27% of young people convicted of serious violent crime in the city. In Manchester the figures are 81% and 6% respectively. Shield does not directly involve joint enterprise but rests on the same flawed ideas about gang membership and the same practices of collective punishment.

Sadiq Khan’s office did not respond to queries I posed about Shield before the election, but whatever the new mayor’s plans are for policing, the tactics involved in Shield are already being used by police outside of the pilot boroughs. In August last year after a stabbing in Kilburn, the Brent borough commander wrote to 28 young people telling them the police had “intelligence [which] suggests you are linked to gang-related criminal activity” demanding they attend a meeting with Brent police, Brent council and other agencies. Non-attendance would be interpreted as “a clear message that you intend to continue with a criminal lifestyle,” the letter stated.

Such ‘call-in’ meetings are a key part of the Shield model, one which a MOPAC spokesperson told me they plan to adopt more widely. Letters have been sent to young people in Tower Hamlets too, telling them that police believe they are “associated to a gang that is linked to crime” (hardly a statement of definite individual culpability) and threatening them with joint enterprise convictions, which the letter inaccurately describes as allowing the police to convict somebody “for just being present when a serious crime is committed.” The tactics of Shield are “rippling out” to Manchester too, according to an academic at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Activists at the Kilburn meeting reported that a staff member from Brent housing told them the council sometimes evicts tenants over crime or ‘anti-social behaviour’ incidents that occur far away from the housing in question, even out of the borough. The housing officer confirmed that the tenancy agreement could be used to make the lead tenant of a council home – for example, a parent – liable for the behaviour of other residents. On the same basis, police in Islington boasted last summer that they had used eviction orders on at least six occasions in recent months. “It’s about getting into the minds of the parents and carers of these young people,” according to Detective Superintendent Stuart Ryan. This is the use of eviction as a form of punishment; a possibility trumpeted when Shield was first announced, and a popular demand of right-wing politicians and journalists after the 2011 riots.

Photo: Paul Townsend/Flickr

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