Policing UK Football: Is it Proportionate?

The Centre for Sports Law Research (CSLR) and Police Research Unit at Edge Hill University hosted the ‘Policing in Football’ event on 22 November 2019. I was fortunate enough to be a part of this event and cannot thank Edge Hill University enough for hosting events which allow aspiring lawyers to network with professionals as well as learn about the current issues within sports law.

The Panel consisted of:

  • Amanda Jacks – Caseworker at the Football Supporters Association (FSA).
  • Dave Charnock – Merseyside Superintendent and Match Commander.
  • Dr Geoff Pearson – Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law at University of Manchester.
  • Owen West – Retired West Yorkshire Chief Superintendent.

Before delving into the discussions on policing styles, alcohol controls and the effectiveness of Football Banning Orders, it was important to examine the current dynamics and management of policing.

Who pays for policing on match days?

Football clubs pay for policing on match days, more accurately, the officers ‘on their footprint’. Essentially, this means that on a match day, the club has to pay for policing at the stadium and surrounding grounds. This does not include the officers present at the train station or town centre which ultimately results in a large number of officers being resourced on match days at the expense of the tax payer. The Panel highlighted that nobody has really looked into the effects of football drawing police away from ‘real crime’ in the community at the weekend.

Policing styles

The Panel discussed different policing styles and the tactics used to prevent disorder and diffuse tension. Research by Dr Geoff Pearson highlighted that policing styles correlate to the likeliness of disorder. Police wearing raid gear are more likely to raise tensions within a crowd, irrespective of whether there was an initial risk of disorder so police tailor their response to the situation. A balance has to be struck between ensuring the officers are protected for their own safety and being conscious that public order kit will raise tensions. It was unanimously agreed that a policing response has to be legitimate in order to be effective at managing disorder.

The Panel recognised that in the past, fans were spoken about, not spoken to. They were only recently considered a legitimate stakeholder in football. The communication between fans, clubs and police is much better now and breaking down these barriers is better for all involved.

Alcohol controls

Discussions moved to alcohol controls within football and whether it’s justifiable that similar restrictions do not apply to other sporting events. The Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol) Act 1985, only places alcohol restriction on football and fans are not permitted to drink alcohol in view of the pitch. It seems unfair to criminalise the drinking of alcohol at football matches, but not at other sports events such as rugby matches, even if they are held at the same stadium only days apart. The general consensus from the Panel is that the legislation was poorly drafted with lasting implications. So why has this legislation been so heavily criticised and what were the intentions behind this football focused legislation?

Dr Geoff Pearson explained that, rather than being designed to stop fans drinking, the current legislation is based on a Scottish Law that aimed at tackling fans taking their own alcohol into stadiums and throwing the empty beer cans at other fans and players. In fact, it was argued that there is no evidence to suggest the legislation has reduced the amount of alcohol fans drink. Arguably it has the opposite effect because fans binge drink before the match and turn up drunk resulting in crushes on turnstiles and stairs. The vast majority will turn up on public transport because they are not permitted to drink alcohol on the designated transport, which in turn creates problems for the police who are unsure of the number of away fans expected to turn up. At half time, fans are rushing into the concourse to get their pint and the cramped conditions make it difficult to police. The current legislation seems more hassle than it is worth and there was a clear willingness across the Panel for the legislation to be reformed, by facilitating safe alcohol consumption and tackling the use of recreational drugs, which can lead to disorder.

Football Banning Orders

The Panel discussed Football Banning Orders and their efficacy. If you commit a football related offence, the police can ban you from football matches to prevent any future disorder. Banning orders are issued under section 14(a) Football Spectators Act 1989 and last for 3 years up to life. The football related offence can be a conviction on any grounds, it doesn’t have to be a violent offence. Banning orders are usually served with exclusions orders which prohibit the offender from being near a match or even a local train station for a certain period of time.

Under section 14(b) a fan can even be banned where there has been no criminal conviction. The Panel argued that as things stand the purpose of the ban is punitive, but that magistrates should consider if the order will prevent future disorder and any punishment should be proportionate. They believed that the wide powers of 14(b) are troubling as fans can face imprisonment for breach. The Home Office show an increase of Football Banning Orders being imposed as a positive thing and some police forces believe the more banning orders the better. However, Owen West disagrees and argued that an increase in banning orders should raise questions about the policing style. Dr Geoff Pearson highlighted that the Home Office have not produced any research into the effectiveness of Football Banning Orders, which are difficult to enforce even with the use of spotters.

This graph shows the number of football banning orders in force in England and Wales from 2010 and 2017

Overall, the event hosted by CSLR and the Police Research Unit was a huge success and I cannot thank the Panel and other practitioners enough for attending events like these and giving students, especially those at Edge Hill University, the opportunity to network and learn so much. Events like these are open to the public and I would encourage anybody, particularly law students, to attend and gain an insight into the world of sports law.

Jaime Penaluna

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