It’s a key part of the match-day experience, but does the policing of football need to change? Rob Parsons reports.
The scene at The Queen pub in Bradford city centre two hours before Bradford City played Oldham Athletic on April 5, 2014, would have been a familiar one to the police officers who regularly keep the peace at local football matches.
Inside the pub was a large group of Oldham supporters, some considered to be at risk of causing trouble, while nearby was a group of around 30 home fans, seemingly spoiling for a fight and trying to avoid police.
With Bradford’s Valley Parade stadium two miles away, the police commander was faced with the prospect of escorting the group across the city centre, accompanied by six mounted police officers and with a helicopter buzzing overhead, at considerable expense.
It was at this point that something unusual happened. Instead of taking the usual steps to avoid clashes between rival fans, members of a ‘police liaison team’ outside the pub spoke to nearby taxi drivers and secured a fixed price to take the Oldham fans to the ground.
By mingling with the supporters in the pub they established that there were only a few potential trouble-makers among the group, and more who just wanted to go to the game with their families or watch it on TV. Within 20 minutes, only 10 ‘risk’ fans remained, meaning an escort was no longer necessary and they themselves could take a taxi to another pub nearer to Valley Parade.
The use of ‘police liaison teams’, or PLTs, whose role is to use dialogue, communication and ‘problem-solving’ tactics rather than force to maintain order, has until recently been considered something of an oddity in football policing.
More commonly deployed at political demonstrations to lower tensions before they reach boiling point, the teams were first seen in West Yorkshire in 2013, the same year the English Defence League held a major rally in Bradford.
A pilot scheme to test their effectiveness at football matches saw them used in four matches in 2014, with an analysis of the Bradford-Oldham game forming the basis of an academic paper.
Professor Clifford Stott of Keele University, an expert in football policing who co-authored the paper, claims that despite the apparent success of the PLTs there is little appetite among senior officers to continue using them.
Instead he says the default approach for the policing of football matches is deploying large numbers of officers to games, often combined with the use of ‘police support units’ (PSUs) made up of 25 officers who can use batons and shields to restore order.
Between 2011 and 2014, some 18,326 West Yorkshire Police officers were deployed at football-related operations, costing more than £4m, though the force says the cost and the number of officers has fallen recently. Prof Stott says the approach is not only expensive but results in some football fans being criminalised unnecessarily.
And he argues that while they shouldn’t be the only tactic deployed, liaison officers are under-used. “Public order policing is a bit of an elitism within policing, there is a culture of machismo in that particular approach. I have had this expression given to me by a number of police officers, who describe this idea of beginning to talk to people as going ‘pink and fluffy’.”
Though previously resistant to the use of police liaison teams, West Yorkshire Police are seemingly moving towards using liaison more at matches to engage better with supporters and potentially reduce costs. Extra spotters, known officially as ‘football intelligence officers’, are being deployed this season on a trial basis and encouraged to do more engagement work, though their role also involves intelligence gathering.
At the end of this season, in which Bradford City, Huddersfield Town and Leeds United could all face vital play-off clashes, a decision will be made on whether they should continue.
Professor Stott has support in the form of Chief Superintendent Owen West, who has many years experience as a silver commander at local matches and has lobbied for a different approach.
He argues that the training given to officers at football matches reflects the reality of decades ago, when disorder and hooliganism were more common.
“The primary tactic in our view shouldn’t be about overwhelming number of officers, PSUs and vans,” he says. “The primary tactics should be about resolving conflict and talking to people.
“We don’t do much at all with home fans, we put huge priority into visiting fans because it’s easier to do off coaches and trains, but yet every Saturday in Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield the same people that live in those areas will come out to the same pubs at the same times and in the same groups.
“We argue that over a period of time, if you put that dialogue in and do that investment, you potentially start to de-escalate some of that, because you have already built relations up with them. And we don’t do that.
“There’s an inevitable choreography where the police turn up at the same time they do, we dance with each other and than we go off. We keep repeating it, season after season after season. We argue there is a different way of doing it.”
LIAISON TEAM SCHEME GOES ON TRIAL
ark Milsom, West Yorkshire Police’s Assistant Chief Constable, said his force had reduced its costs and was deploying between a third and half the number of officers used six or seven years ago.
He said the use of extra officers performing liaison work was being trialled this season, and a decision would be made about whether they could replace some of the officers currently being deployed. He said ‘police liasion teams’ appeared to work better with home fans than away supporters.