What’s a Gang?

Harry Stopes

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, commonsense and media-amplified construct’ that is little more than ‘a signifier for Black men’. Stuart Hall's ‘mugger’ has returned with another name.


  • 14 July 2015 at 3:48pm
    Simon Wood says:
    A pub social scientist would say there's a style element to street tribes like gangsta man dem, skaters, convoy crusties, black-bloc anarchists, hipsters - style and lifestyle, identity and belonging - that is an end in itself.

    You wear the clothes, listen to the music, talk the talk, walk the walk and then you wear out.

    If you adopt an identity, you can be identified, that's why you do it. You're not just a media-amplified construct, you're someone.

    OK, let's not call them police any more. Let's call them sociologists, style commentators, mentors or creative directors. But let's not be so prejudiced against them that we stop them from nicking people.

    • 16 July 2015 at 3:16pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Simon Wood
      There's a big difference between dressing the same as your friends and being part of a organised criminal group. Choosing to 'adopt an identity' as you put it does not mean one's crimes - if one commits any - should be subject to special legislation and special punishment. Williams is not saying that sub-cultures of clothing or music or whatever don't exist, he's saying that reporting by media, and policy making by government, is based on a mythical bogey man called 'the gang', which is portrayed as a threat far beyond the reality. The negative consequences of this construct overwhelmingly burden young black men. I'm not against people who commit crimes being arrested - what an absurd reading - I'm against people being unfairly and disproportionately targeted because of their race. Remember also in the context of Operation Shield that we're talking about people being nicked for things they haven't even done.

    • 17 July 2015 at 12:09am
      Simon Wood says: @ Harry Stopes
      I ain't done nuffink.

  • 15 July 2015 at 8:45am
    Paul Taylor says:
    What's a gang?

    This is a gang:

    • 15 July 2015 at 12:06pm
      sol_adelman says: @ Paul Taylor
      Heh-heh, yes indeed. And one that has wrecked a lot more violence than any outta hackney or Lambeth.