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Football policing needs new approach, says radical pilot

Outdated approaches to policing football are missing vital intelligence and 'leaving forces open to legal challenge'

A project backed by the English Football League and six police forces is trialling new methods to control match days based on the science of crowd behaviour.

The ENABLE project is based on research and methods trialled over the last four years. It is scaling up to provide evidence over the next two seasons. The team involved say it could deliver a less hostile experience for fans and lower the costs of policing games.

By intervening earlier, communicating smartly and having better intelligence about the groups of supporters, forces could scale back the number of officers needed and lower the risk score of the event, it says.

The forces involved in ENABLE are Lancashire, South Wales, Staffordshire, West Midlands and West Yorkshire plus the British Transport Police.

The two academics at the centre of the pilot also warned some forces have yet to adapt to rulings from the European Court of Human Rights and could be subject to legal challenge as a result.

Dr Geoff Pearson, Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law at Manchester University told Police Oracle: “The legal situation has changed over the last eight years. We now have the European Convention on Human Rights which includes a right to assembly for expression at social cultural gatherings such as football events.

“There’s a positive obligation to officers in the UK to respect their identity. At the moment if you go to a briefing, you don’t hear many mentions of Article 10 and 11: it’s quite rare.” 

It comes at a time when chief constables and politicians are raising concerns about the £48m a year cost of policing football games which mainly comes out of local budgets.

The launch comes just days after an FA cup match was abandoned due to racist abuse, renewing concerns over disorder at games and preparations for the Euro 2020 championship games that will be played in the UK.

Dr Pearson said the threat of disorder has not changed but become more hidden: “I don’t think the make-up of football crowds has changed as much as people think. There are more people going than there were in the 80s. That dilutes the young, male, aggressive element but that sub-culture is still there.

 “If you get the crowd management wrong, riots can happen. That’s why we need to be more vigilant. Yes, football crowds have changed because of different demographics.”

Professor Clifford Stott, Professor of Social Psychology at Keele University, told Police Oracle their aim was to create more useful evidence on which officers could base their decisions: “When you think about the analysis of public policy and policing, it’s almost totally in relation to protest. All of the development happened in relation to the Adapting to Protest review but not to football. That created a problem because all of the guidance applies to football. The debate hasn’t moved on since the early 2000s.”

A major difference in their approach has been including a deeper assessment of intelligence in pre-match planning.

Dr Pearson said: “We [police forces] don’t have a very sophisticated intelligence-gathering operation. I’ve seen an anonymous posting on Twitter being used in intelligence reports – and if you’d talked to the football fans, you’d know it was rubbish.

“In most cases you could deploy with fewer police. Sometimes an increased intelligence picture means you will need more police but it’s quite rare.”

Professor Stott said intelligence gathering was too focused on looking for a threat rather than understanding the supporters – and then refusing to adjust their assessment.

He said: “The intelligence police are using is quite questionable. It misses the culture of the people you police. Once you understand their view of the world you know how to deal with that. If you look for hooligans and plan for an event, it’s likely to become confrontational. The information bears very little resemblance to what materialises on the day.

“Once that information is in the planning calculations, it gets very difficult to pull out of that and a lot of police officers are deployed unnecessarily. What we are often seeing is planning for the worst case scenario that is often not materialising. The root of the problem is that you can understand the fans in a better way - know what’s driving the confrontation.”

Professor Stott revealed their research had shown there is an increase in crime on match days – but not by football fans: “The knock-on is that officers had rest days cancelled to manage the event. The crime in fact that wasn’t getting any attention was where they would normally be. The arrest that day the officer isn’t getting is the high-volume burglars. The risk has increased but the force doesn’t seem to think that’s an issue.”

He added: “Some commanders are policing ‘just in case’ and you can’t afford to do that any more. Policing is so much better than it was 15 years ago, so how can we de-escalate?”

Their research has also challenged the traditional research about crowds which is based on the premise that crowds are a mob that has to be controlled.

“People don’t lose their individuality in a crowd. It’s about the interaction between crowd members and the introduction of an outsider. If that interaction between them all is positive, you reduce the risk,” Dr Pearson added.

The pair have been embedded with police forces carrying out match day operations for four years and their report, Enabling an Evidence-based Approach to Policing Football in the UK, has set out their learning gained so far.

The three changes they want to see are:

The National Police Chief’s Council Research Unit said their work “is worth further research”.

They have identified work by Lancashire Constabulary as best practice and the Dedicated Football Officer who has been leading on crowd policing at Preston North End.

Professor Stott said: “The DFO, Paul Elliott, understands the football culture and social media. There’d been major disturbances at Luton’s match with Birmingham at a weekend game. They were next to 5,000 travelling fans. What they did resulted in a 35 per cent cost reduction. There were no arrests and there was no disorder.”

Planning before a game is another example where Lancashire are getting it right, they believe. Ahead of a game between Preston and Stoke, including fans in discussion was key to avoiding trouble.

Professor Stott said: “In the planning phase there was a sense that they were grading it quite highly. There was an expectation that there might be a problem. Paul Elliott was able to reach out to the informal and the representative Stoke fans and brought them to a planning meeting with the senior commanders. They were then extra-reassured that they weren’t a risk.”

Dr Pearson, said a simple way of achieving the same results elsewhere is by treating fans in the same way as they would in every other situation.

He said: “Most of the police officers tasked with football matches do very good engagement day to day in their neighbourhood and response roles. The question is why that changes when they police football?

“If you establish an on-going dialogue with fans, then when you send in officers, you know the risk you are putting them in. And if they have to tell fans to calm down, they will listen because officers have previously been alright with them.”

Does this mean changing the rules of engagement, particularly for commanders?

Dr Pearson said: “We’re not at that stage yet – we’re gathering the evidence. And it’s a lot more than just training people.”

Communicating with football fans is an idea that could struggle in the current political climate but

He is confident that ENABLE will survive: “One of the reasons that the project has got traction is the era of austerity. We’re at the fourth stage of the project now. Yes there’s more police officers, more money and the political background is different but that’s why we’ve got the pilot.”

Professor Stott added the new approach builds on changes that have already quietly been made by police forces in dealing with football fans.

He said: “I don’t think the police have taken ownership of what they’ve achieved. They’ve managed to respond to those problems in a nuanced way. They used to just get out the batons.”

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