Operation Shield: What is it and should we be sceptical about its implementation?

Mayor of London Boris Johnson has given Operation Shield his full support

(Image: International Business Times)

Written by Remi Salisbury

A pilot scheme enabling the criminal justice system to punish all members of a gang for the actions of just one individual has been launched in three boroughs of London.

Operation Shield, launched in Haringey, Lambeth, and Westminster is set to cost £200,000 and, according to the London Evening Standard, will see ‘gang members’ told that “each will suffer a civil or criminal sanction if any of their gang carries out an assault, stabbing or other serious crime”.

Talking about the operation, London Mayor, Boris Johnson says, “It is time we gave these gang members a clear ultimatum – the police know who you are and if anyone in the gang steps out of line then every member will face consequences”.

Given the institutional racism that continues to pervade the police force and the criminal justice system, it should cause alarm that we would be reliant on the application of police ‘intelligence’. For instance, despite evidence that white people are more likely to use illicit drugs, racial profiling still sees black people stopped at more than six times the rate of their white counterparts. It seems that racism takes precedence over intelligence. To allow such a racist institution the freedom to assign guilt to any person they decide is a ‘gang member’ seems, at best, a slippery slope towards greater racial inequality.

The 12 month pilot scheme is inspired by an approach taken in several US cities. Given the current climate of tension between US police and African American communities it seems troubling, if unsurprising, that Boris Johnson would find his inspiration in US policy.

One such city where this policy is adopted is Boston, Massachusetts. The long legacy of racist policing in Boston should present a stark warning to the Policing and Crime Office in London. Just last year the American Civil Liberties Union concluded their four year study with findings that offer "clear evidence of racial bias in BPD policing". Similarly, in New Haven community activists warned against the "covert racism" inherent in such a scheme.

London Campaign Against Police and State Violence have likened the scheme to the controversial Joint Enterprise law which enables the criminal justice system to charge several people for the same offence, regardless of their individual level of participation. According to campaigners from JENGbA (Joint Enterprise – Not Guilty by Association) the "lazy law...disproportionately affects BME communities”.

We must also note the long history of racialised representations of black males as criminals and gang members and be wary of how this may feed into the broader structure of society, and policing. As The London Campaign Against Police and State Violence note “[t]he use of the word “gang” in policing and crime contexts… is a racialised term to stigmatise groups of working class black youth and stereotype them as criminals by default”. The concern here is two-fold; firstly, these perceptions can, and do, influence policing. Secondly, the fast-tracking of the defendant, sees them stigmatised within this racial discourse.

Finally, we must also be aware of the detrimental impact of, what Angela Davis calls, the prison-industrial complex. The complex refers to the economic dependency upon a constant supply of prisoners that allows a number of companies and organisations to make profit. Davis has long campaigned against the racialised impact of the complex in the US and there are increasing concerns about its impact here in the UK.

The deputy mayor for policing and crime claims that “[e]vidence shows that the ‘one rule for all’ approach’ cuts violence”. It seems highly improbable, given the history of the police force, that this operation will represent ‘one rule for all’.