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 disorder, while in the immediate area 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 television.
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 primary tactic shouldn’t be about overwhelming number of officers, police support units and vans, it should be about resolving conflict and talking to people.Chief Superintendent Owen West
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 the traditionally macho world of 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 last year.
Professor Clifford Stott of Keele University, an expert in football and public order policing who co-authored the paper, said that despite the apparent success of the PLTs there was no appetite by senior officers to continue using them.
Instead, says Professor Stott, 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’ 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 the taxpayer more than £4m, though the force says the cost and the number of officers has fallen in recent years.
According to the University of Keele academic, the approach is not only expensive, but results in some football fans being criminalised unnecessarily after being drawn into conflicts with police.
And he argues that the while they should not be the only tactic deployed, liaison officers are currently under-used and could make a “useful contribution”.
“This isn’t just a UK issue, we are trying to build an international framework where we help forces move away from the idea that the solution is all about intelligence gathering and coercion and deterrence,” he said.
“It’s actually about communication and facilitation. While it is so obvious at some levels it is such a difficult thing to do. This force could have embraced this research and theory but there is a resistance to it.
“I don’t think it is just in the senior command, we experienced in the study quite a lot of resistance at all levels. 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’.
“When you deconstruct that, there is an idea that this dialogue approach is somehow a fundamental encroachment on the norms of what it means to be a PSU officer. Although it’s meant as a funny statement it captures a lot of where I think the problem is.”
Though previously resistant to the use of police liaison teams, West Yorkshire Police are seemingly moving towards using liaison more at matches to reduce costs and engage better with supporters.
Extra spotters, known officially as ‘football intelligence officers’, are being deployed this season on a trial basis and encouraged to do more engagement work with supporters, though their role also involves intelligence gathering about potentially disorderly fans.
At the end of the season, during which Bradford City, Huddersfield Town and Leeds United all potentially face vital play-off clashes, a decision will be made on their effectiveness and whether they should continue.
Professor Stott questions the role of spotters, adding: “There is a danger that what’s happening is that you are just increasing the number of people who are gathering information about fans, and not necessarily engaging effectively with the ways in which our research and theory tells us you need to engage with fans.”
He has support from within the force in the form of Chief Superintendent Owen West, who has many years experience as a silver commander at local football matches and has lobbied for a different approach, most recently in a speech at Keele University.
He argues that the training given to officers at football matches reflects the reality of decades ago, in the days before billions of pounds were poured into the English game, when disorder and hooliganism were more common.
“The threat has changed from the 70s and 80s and early 90s when there was petrol and there was disorder and things like that.
“The primary tactic in our view shouldn’t be about overwhelming number of officers, and PSUs and vans. The primary tactics should be about resolving conflict and talking to people with dialogue and facilitation.
“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.”
Chief Supt West recently attended a game at West Bromwich Albion, where West Midlands Police are piloting the use of police liaison teams.
“Part of it is the accountability dynamic, fear of a silver commander of it going wrong. If I was policing Huddersfield-Leeds and there was disorder, it would be all over your paper,” he said.
“Your operational credibility becomes weakened because it was lost on your watch.
“If we had disorder, don’t give Owen another one of those. In a sense, the easiest thing to do is have an overwhelming number of officers, stick with the orthodoxy.”
Mark Roberts, national lead for football policing and South Yorkshire Police’s temporary Deputy Chief Constable, said police chiefs around the country were familiar with the use of liaison officers but they were not the ‘silver bullet’ for tackling football disorder.
He said: “There is a range of options you need to apply. I am not a golfer myself but you have a bag with different clubs in. With football policing it is about choosing the right tool for the situation you are presented with.
“It is very dangerous to say one particular tool is the only one you should use. That is the difference between the academic world and the real world.
“There is no need to convince people in football policing that liaison is key but you have to accept that at times and at high risk games there needs to be a different approach.”
Mark Milsom, West Yorkshire Police’s Assistant Chief Constable, said the force had already reduced the cost of football policing, 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, rather than being an extra resource.
Describing the use of PLTs, he said: “It works pretty well with home groups but less well with away groups. It all revolves around trying to have a degree of relationship.”
Professor Stott said he was “disappointed” by the response to his arguments. He said: “At no point, do we ever claim that liaison is a ‘silver bullet’ nor that it should be the only tactic available to the police.
“Our point is that liaison is currently underutilised when the evidence shows that it can make a useful contribution in addition to the other tactics currently used.
“I would also make clear my research has a solid basis of evidence gathered during many very high risk events and is the conceptual basis of public order policing across the UK.
“To suggest it is somehow disconnected to the ‘real world’ simply highlights our point about the difficulties faced in constructing evidence based approaches in this area’’.