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February 7th 2019

Civil Liberties

Police must focus on duty to protect at football and sports events and not cross the line over crowd control

Karl Griffin

Karl Griffin

Litigation Executive and Team Supervisor, Civil Liberties

Police must focus on duty to protect at football and sports events and not cross the line over crowd control

I was interested to read recent statistics which revealed there had been more than 230 complaints made by members of the public about policing at football matches – with allegations ranging from excessive force being used to restricting fans’ movements.

I was interested to read recent statistics which revealed there had been more than 230 complaints made by members of the public about policing at football matches – with allegations ranging from excessive force being used to restricting fans’ movements.

Without doubt, police officers have an important and at times a very difficult job to, especially at large football matches or other high-profile sporting events such as boxing or international contests and cup finals.

However, police officers’ duty on such occasions is to ensure the safety of the thousands of people who attend looking for an afternoon’s entertainment, and to protect them from any harm should situations of violence or abuse arise.

In the majority of cases, football related arrests are made under the Public Order Act, which encompasses a wide range of anti-social behaviour and sees offences committed if a person causes someone else to feel ‘harassment, alarm or distress’.

This could be because of swearing, shouting, displaying a sign or banner that causes offence, or using intimidating behaviour or violence.

It is in managing any events of this nature that police must act with complete professionalism.

They must not cross the line and abuse their powers simply because they are in the mix of what can be pent-up, volatile, passionate and confrontational environments.

It is crucial that they are also able to quickly distinguish between those who are breaking the law, and those who are innocent bystanders.

Even something which an officer may feel relatively minor – such as a push or a forceful shove – can be intimidating and upsetting, and could lead to injuries, something we have seen ourselves at Hudgell Solicitors in cases where supporters have turned to us for legal advice.

Such actions can also be classed as an assault if there was no justification for their actions, so there is a need for forces to ensure they use officers experienced in such situations to best manage safety.

More than a third of complaints allege ‘excessive use of force’ by police officers

It is somewhat disappointing that not all police forces responded to a Freedom of Information request which asked how many complaints had been made about police behaviour by people attending football matches behaviour the 2013/14 and 2017/18 seasons.

Forces should be willing to share such information and be prepared to explain the figures and their actions. The fact that 16 forces failed to comply suggests the likely number of complaints will have been much higher.

Interestingly, of the 233 complaints made over five seasons, 82 were about alleged assaults or excessive uses of force by the police.

Complaints included:

  • Allegations that a large group of officers threw a fan over a railing before hitting others with batons at a game between Manchester City and Everton in January 2016.
  • Suggestions a fan was “grabbed by the face by an officer and dragged to the ground” and another “struck with a baton by officer who also racially abused them” from the same match.
  • Batons being used on fans at a game between Manchester United and Manchester City in March 2016 – complaints which were upheld.
  • Three allegations against The Metropolitan Police for a lack of action to prevent crushing.
  • Allegations that police used a PAVA spray against supporters – including children – at a game between Scunthorpe and Grimsby.
  • Fans being restricted in their movement (held in one place for a period of time)

In some cases the matters have been resolved by local resolution (police forces explaining or clearing up the matter directly with the complainant), whilst in others forces have found themselves to have no case to answer, meaning they felt they had grounds not to deal with the complaint.

This seems a little concerning, and in matches where a number of consistent complaints are made by fans, I would suggest there must be some form of external, independent investigation to ensure the actions of officers are fully questioned.

Whilst we fully appreciate police officers face a difficult job, it is often too simply to label large groups of innocent fans at football and other sports as ‘trouble makers’, simply because they are in high spirits.

We know there are many cases where fans find themselves arrested for no good reason, or are unreasonably detained against their will when there is no proven need.

Overstepping the line is an abuse of power, and we believe supporters and attendees at all major sporting occasions should be able to gain redress or an apology when officers fail to protect, and actually cause harm themselves.

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