Policing matchday fans: an experiment in the North East?

Sgt Neil Pacey, from Northumbria Police, tells how force’s ‘community policing’ approach to matches is cutting disorder

newcastle v sunderland dec 14
Community police eager to assist any football fan with directions after the Newcastle Sunderland derby clash at St James Park Dec 2014

The relationship between football fans and police has not always been an easy one. For generations rival supporters were kept apart at games by officers dressed in riot gear, whose brief was to keep the public safe and control disorder on match days before returning to other duties on their next shift. But over the last year Northumbria Police has been working to break-down the ‘us and them’ mentality of policing football matches.

In a bid to replicate its already successful ‘neighbourhood policing’ model the force decided to treat fans, clubs, players and businesses around grounds as a ‘community’ in their own right. And a specialist football neighbourhood policing team was set-up at the start of last season. The officers have fast become familiar faces among the Newcastle United and Sunderland AFC’s faithful followers.

And Sgt Neil Pacey from the team explains how in just 12 months the relationship between police and supporters has been revolutionised. He said: “It’s not us and them anymore. It’s all about policing with the community. The fans know me and the other officers by name, and some even have my phone number.”

For many years football policing operations were planned in isolation with police focusing on the match-day alone and how they could control and contain any trouble that might arise. Whereas neighbourhood policing in Tyneside’s communities sees the same officers getting to know the public they look after, talking to them about issues and concerns and working with them to prevent problems arising. And it was decided there was no reason why this approach couldn’t work with football fans.

“In the past we would just deal with football matches on a Saturday and we would keep fans at arms length,” Sgt Pacey explained. “But we started last year to use a neighbourhood policing approach to policing the football community, and by community I mean the fans, the clubs, the coach companies that take fans to away matches, the clubs’ foundation academies and the businesses around the grounds, because they are a community.”

“What we do now is engage with the football community,” he said. “We hold lots of fans meetings and as a result of this engagement and the extra contact the trust and communication between police and fans has improved.”

The first major test of whether this new policing model was successful came last December when Sunderland travelled to St James’ Park for the Tyne-Wear Derby. A month earlier the first ever meeting attended by both Sunderland and Newcastle fans was held. And after consulting with supporters match commander Chief Sup Steve Neill took the decision to change the way the often tense fixture was managed. [By deploying the greatest number of police ever for the fixture – editor].

Gone were the rings of steel and frog-marching of fans from train station to stadium. Instead Black Cats supporters were encouraged to make their own way to the ground with police only stepping in if trouble-flared. And the move, branded risky by some, paid off with a relatively trouble-free derby day. [Apart from the 17 arrests – editor].

“We talked to the fans about how we could make the day a better experience for everyone, not just going to the match,” said Sgt Pacey. “A football match shouldn’t bring a city to a standstill. We got a lot of feedback from fans about how they perceived the police operation and a lot of suggestions.”

“We started the planning for this season in the very short close season. We look at each fixture and decide what resources we need and we look at each match in depth. Every team is different,” said Sgt Pacey.

Football-related crime and disorder has also changed a lot over the years. The use of banning orders and increased CCTV coverage has significantly reduced the organised violence and hooliganism that characterised the 1980s and 90s. But police face a new challenge in tackling the alcohol-related anti-social behaviour, which can go hand-in-hand with the beautiful game. And in much the same way this issue is addressed in a residential community, Sgt Pacey says education and prevention are always better than cure.

“The main issue we now have in football is alcohol-related disorder,” he said. “A major part of that was coming from the coach travel so we engage with travelling fans before they travel out of the force area and educate them.”

“At our meetings we get people aged from around 25 right up to 70 so our main focus this year will be to engage more with young people.” said Sgt Pacey. “We are doing some ground-breaking restorative justice work with one young man who got involved in the disorder at the 2013 derby, and we are identifying youths that have been on the periphery of disorder and talking to them. It’s all about education and prevention.”

The officers are also working with schools, youth offending teams and the foundations at both NUFC and SAFC to engage with young people and educate them about behaviour at football matches. While the idea of trouble-free football matches may seem like a utopian dream, Sgt Pacey’s ambition is to see a day where rival sets of fans can mix freely and enjoy themselves without any risk.

“We have come a really long way to get to this point,” he said. “This is a much better way of doing it for everybody involved. Football is like anything else in that the minority will spoil it for the majority. But everything we are doing her is stopping the minority and making the whole football environment a difficult place for those seeking to cause trouble and a better place for the majority.”

Nice One comment:

Obviously this is just a propaganda piece on behalf of the police, but it does raise a few interesting issues in terms of the future of policing against football fans. And there should be no mistake, despite the fluff and positive media spin of this article, the role of the police is still to act as an oppositional force against football fans. What the article doesn’t say is that they had to deploy a record number of coppers – including riot police, horses etc for the Tyne-Wear derby fixture in December to guarantee there would be no trouble, essentially flooding the area with overwhelming numbers. Despite this there were still 17 arrests.

Firstly if this is a trial to see how effective this ‘new style’ of policing can be with a view to rolling it out nationwide, then Newscastle-Sunderland is no better place to try it out. Given the fierce rivalry between the two clubs and the historic level of confrontation between fans on derby day if the police can subdue this environment there should be no problem extending across the whole of the country. That’s the theory anyway.

Secondly because of the shifting supporter base of most Premier League clubs – they are now customers not fans (and paying good money for the privilege) the police cannot continue to treat them as scum, as they have done with ordinary working class fans throughout the years. The task then of the police in the future will be to act as a filter between the modern football customer and the traditional working class fan. This is what we are seeing taking place now in this North East experiment.

Thirdly, the concept of police interfering in peoples lives beyond matchday won’t go down to well with most people. There is still enough of a level of hostility and suspicion amongst ordinary working class people towards the police that to attempt to impose football conditions on a community level will just create tensions elsewhere outside of matchdays.

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Read more: http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/how-northumbria-police-changing-relationship-9900316#ICID

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