Stand-off with police in Croydon, 2011. PHOTO: Raymond Yau on Flickr

This is a cross post by Harry Stopes that first appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

For more on Operation Shield see Campaign condemns London Mayor’s “gang” strategy as racist ‘collective punishment’

According to the Policing and Crime Act 2009, for violence to be ‘gang-related’ means that it involves at least three people, associated with a particular geographical area, who have ‘a name, emblem or colour’ which allows others to identify them as a group. Last month this was revised in new statutory guidance from the Home Office. There’s no longer any mention of geographical territory or gang emblems: a ‘gang’ is any group that commits crime and has ‘one or more characteristics that enable its members to be identified as a group’. There’s no mention of what those ‘characteristics’ might be.

The new definition applies mostly to gang injunctions: civil orders issued against named individuals, preventing them from ‘engaging in, encouraging or assisting’ gang-related violence or drug dealing (for example, by ordering them not to associate with particular people or be in a particular location). This shift has wider implications. The Home Office has recently said that it intends to agree a ‘unified gang definition’, to be used by all police forces, local authorities and other interested parties, previous ones having proven ‘unduly restrictive’.

A unified definition, used by social services and local authorities as well as police, would be in keeping with the approach of Operation Shield. Shield is currently being piloted by the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police in Haringey, Lambeth and Westminster. It is based on the Group Violence Intervention method, which among other things declares that since gang crime is inherently an act of a group, the response of authorities should target the group as a whole. In the words of the Shield Operating Model, ‘from this point on, police, partners and community representatives will pay special attention to an entire gang when a single member commits a violent act.’ The Operating Model, released by Freedom of Information request, is heavily redacted, leaving no clue as to the form such collective punishment will take.

An Evening Standard report suggests that sanctions could include gang injunctions, mandatory employment training or eviction from social housing, as well as custodial sentences. But we don’t know how the targeted ‘cohort’ will be identified.

In these circumstances racial prejudice looks likely to inform the policing of gangs, with obvious consequences for Shield, and whatever incarnation it takes after the pilot. According to figures from the Met, 78.2 per cent of the 3422 people listed on their ‘Gangs Matrix’ are identified as black, and a further 8.7 per cent are from other ethnic minority groups: that’s in a London-wide population that is still around 60 per cent white. In Greater Manchester, 89 per cent of individuals on the police list are from ethnic minorities, an even starker disproportion in a city where the white population is more than 80 per cent.

What is a ‘gang’, and why is alleged membership so starkly racially patterned? What fears lies behind the headlines? As Patrick Williams, a criminologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, argues, the gang is a ‘pervasive, common sense and media-amplified construct’ that is little more than ‘a signifier for Black men’.

Stuart Hall’s ‘mugger’ has returned with another name.