#sportslaw #crowdcontrol #intelligentpolicing #safety #sanctioning
Monday, 21 November 2022 - Last weekend was dubbed a ‘black weekend’ for Belgian football as a result of numerous incidents.
Football matches are being regularly suspended and even stopped altogether. Pyrotechnics are being ignited during games and objects are being thrown onto the pitch, fighting and rioting in the stands is becoming ever more common and pitch invasions a regular ‘feature’ at football matches, much to the dismay of regular football fans who fear for their safety.
Football crowd disorder is clearly on the rise. So, this is an opportune time to speak to one of Europe’s most prominent experts on dealing with football crowd disorder, Professor Geoff Pearson.1
ATFIELD: Over the last couple of months, Belgium seems faced with a clear increase in crowd disorder. How is the situation in the UK?
GEOFF PEARSON: I believe that, post-pandemic and post-lockdown, we have had an uptick in football-related violence and disorder in the UK as well. It’s mainly lower level disorder, however, and I think that it is connected to a number of factors.
Firstly, there has been a deterioration in the behaviour of some fans and that in turn is connected to the fact that during the lockdown fans did not have the opportunity to gather together and drink and sing and basically ‘push the boundaries’. So, last season in particular they tended to do that harder and that brought fans more into conflict with other fans and the police.
Secondly, we have seen a bit of a collapse in the self-regulation and self-policing of fan groups, which has a lot to do with the turnover in fans. We have seen a lot of fans who, for whatever reason, stopped going to games regularly. At the same time, you see a massive rush of teenage fans that previously might have gone with their parents but are now a couple of years older and want to go on their own. With this sort of turnover, traditional forms of self-regulation have been challenged.
I think therefore that there has been a deterioration in crowd behaviour in the UK.
“I believe that, post-pandemic and post-lockdown, we have had an uptick in football-related violence and disorder in the UK as well.”
But it has been made worse by the challenges to football crowd management. Indeed, we have a crisis in the security industry in the UK, post-Brexit and post-pandemic. And, in addition, good football policing operations have been hampered by the lockdown because the police have not had the opportunity to engage in those forms of good policing that lead to positive outcomes, such as negotiating and intelligence-gathering.
So yes, I think we have had an uptick. But I think it will settle down, particularly as forms of self-regulation and good policing operations re-establish themselves.
ATFIELD: It seems that the UK has often been perceived in the past – correctly or not - as a ‘hotbed’ for crowd disorder. Is crowd disorder under better control at present? Maybe having been, in a way, at the forefront of hooliganism 1.0 has resulted in the UK having the advantage of being at the forefront of the remedies for tackling hooliganism 2.0? If so, which measures have, according to you, led to this improvement?
GEOFF PEARSON: In terms of whether the UK is at the forefront of good crowd management practices, I do think that the UK is one of the better countries, certainly when it comes to dealing with this issue domestically.
That had a lot to do with the authorities in our country being put under a lot of pressure in the 80s to try and do something about it following a number of events, including the events at Heysel. But also, to a certain extent, I think we just got a bit lucky in that lots of things happened in the period between 1988 and 1994. A lot of things changed that all basically affected each other.
We had changes to the law where we, for instance, introduced football banning orders, which meant that people who were convicted of a criminal offence related to football then are not allowed to attend football matches any more. There are exclusion zones in which they are not allowed to get into or around stadiums and city centres. And they are not allowed to travel abroad when English teams are playing abroad. These are very draconian measures, adopted in the late 80s.
Although, of course, on their own, they are useful measures, they are not going to solve the problem.
But, fortunately, another thing happened at the same time. For example, we had a move towards intelligence-led football policing in the late 80s and the establishment of a national football policing intelligence unit and that, of course, made it easier to nationally enforce these football banning orders.
But what about those people that would look to sneak into matches? Around the same time, we had the Hillsborough stadium disaster which led to massive stadium redevelopment in the UK. We had growth in closed circuit television technologies, we had better segregation with stands and stadiums being redeveloped with safety and security in mind. And that of course meant that, if you had a football banning order, the chances that you were going to be able to go to a match with a football banning order and get away with it were incredibly slim.
Also, this was paid for by the fact that, around the same time, there was a massive surge of satellite television money into the Premier League, which meant that the clubs suddenly could afford to make all these changes.
So there was never a great strategy or a great plan to deal with football-related disorder in the UK, but there were a number of good developments. None of those, by themselves, would have solved the problem, but all together they have at least had a massive impact on reducing the levels and the amount of football-related disorder in and around football stadiums.
“There was never a great strategy or a great plan to deal with football-related disorder in the UK, but there were a number of good developments. None of those, by themselves, would have solved the problem, but all together they have at least had a massive impact on reducing the levels and the amount of football-related disorder in and around football stadiums.”
ATFIELD: As far as the UK is concerned, where do you think improvements are still possible today?
GEOFF PEARSON: A lot of the laws that were introduced to manage football crowds were introduced in the mid-80s and early 90s and these are frankly starting to get out-of-date. The laws need refreshing. We have got laws, for example, around alcohol consumption that actually cause problems rather than provide solutions to football-related disorder. So some of the laws are not working.
In addition to that, there are always improvements that could be made to football policing. We don’t have a national police force in the UK, we have different police forces regionally. Some of these police forces police football very well and some police football quite badly. Ultimately we need better national guidance. And this is about to happen. We have a new set of national guidelines that have been released to the police forces, and myself and other academics had an input into what those guidelines say.
The new guidelines are much more nuanced on how to categorise types of supporters and matches in terms of the risk of football disorder. Football spotters, who would gather evidence to ban fans, are being renamed as operational football officers. Although the latter still have that role, they have a lot more focus on developing relationships with the fan community and engaging in dialogue.
There has been a change in emphasis. These new guidelines will hopefully work better, with more focus on dialogue-based approaches and the improvement of policing intelligence. One of the problems with policing is that, while it is intelligence-based and that as such is better than just being reactive to disorder, a lot of that football intelligence is of a very, very poor quality. Our research suggests that the police intelligence reports, on which operations are based, rarely bear any relation to what actually happened on a match day.
A last improvement is that we need to have more fan engagement and involvement in safety and policing decisions.
ATFIELD: Back to Belgium. Belgium has a specific Football Safety Act that was adopted in 1998 in preparation for the UEFA European Championships in the Low Countries. The Act imposes a string of obligations on match organisers and sets out a specific ‘hybrid’ sanction mechanism against supporters crossing a line: administrative sanctions can be imposed through expedited proceedings with an appeal being possible before the Police Tribunal.
GEOFF PEARSON: Maybe the Belgian Football Safety Act is ‘lost in translation’ because I don’t see any crowd safety at all when I come to Belgium. When I was last at a Belgian European match, the Belgian club locked English fans in the concourse with stewards who did not have the keys to the gate. If there had been an incident, for example a terrorist incident or a fire, hundreds of fans would have died as a result of that. That breaches all the UEFA regulations saying that the gates have to be open, and I am pretty sure it was also in breach of the local regulations. This is exactly what we had in the UK with the Hillsborough disaster where ultimately the enquiry said that there had been too much focus on hooliganism and not enough focus on customer care and safety. Ultimately, if Belgium keeps on doing what it is doing, fans are going to die. That is inevitable.
“Ultimately, if Belgium keeps on doing what it is doing, fans are going to die. That is inevitable.”
Another issue is the Belgian policing, which is notoriously bad towards football crowds and which is substantially worse than the Dutch police just across the border, and only marginally better than the French, which are probably the worst. Essentially, the Belgian police do not apply crowd-science. We have reams and reams of academic papers and studies and experiments that tell us how crowds behave and why they behave in this way and that is way, which, from what I can see, is completely ignored by the Belgian police authorities. So yes, there are huge problems in Belgium. And the idea that there is something like a Football Safety Act seems very ironic and it is probably a surprise for people from other countries that such a thing in Belgium exists.
“Essentially, the Belgian police do not apply crowd-science. We have reams and reams of academic papers and studies and experiments that tell us how crowds behave and why they behave in this way and that is way, which, from what I can see, is completely ignored by the Belgian police authorities.”
ATFIELD: In Belgium, in addition to sanctioning individual perpetrators, clubs can be sanctioned. Whereas clubs, of course, can take both precautions (ticket sales, camera surveillance, stewards) and sanctions (civil exclusions based on their rules of internal order), there are clear limitations on what they can do as they have no policing powers. There are numerous examples of clubs doing whatever they can to avoid crowd disturbances, whilst still being sanctioned. Clubs are organising games, but the eventual competition organisers such as the Belgian FA can impose additional regulatory sanctions on clubs. The applicable regulations, to the growing frustration of clubs, is to depart from the strict-liability principle. If a club’s “supporters” misbehave, then the club is punished, no matter what. What are your thoughts on this strict-liability approach, both in terms of its legality and in terms of its usefulness?
GEOFF PEARSON: Strict-liability is a wrong way of attempting to influence behaviour because by its very nature, punishments are being imposed irrespective of whether you have done anything wrong or not. So it is often perceived as being unfair and unjust. Usually, you will only suffer consequences if you are to blame for something. That is how the law usually works most of the time everywhere.
“Strict-liability is a wrong way of attempting to influence behaviour because by its very nature, punishments are being imposed irrespective of whether you have done anything wrong or not. So it is often perceived as being unfair and unjust.”
For example, there is nothing or certainly very little that clubs can do about the behaviour of their fans away from home, when they are not in charge of the regulation of those fans.
Generally, clubs or sports governing bodies are not best positioned when it comes to managing football crowd disorder. We know this historically; in countries that have gotten on top of crowd disorder problems, that change has come from the top, from the government and from changes in policing matches. That is how one improves these issues. The risk in terms of fining clubs for the behaviour of fans by closing stadiums and that sort of thing is that you do not have any effect on the disorderly fans themselves – they have nothing to lose – and it affects all fans, meaning that those fans that have not done anything wrong are being punished. And what that means is that when an initiative by the club or by the governing body is trying to improve things, those fans will turn their backs on it because they hate it for punishing them when they did nothing wrong. And you have got to bring fans on board with these initiatives. You will not curtail football fan disorder, unless the fans are on your side.
“Generally, clubs or sports governing bodies are not best positioned when it comes to managing football crowd disorder.”
What UEFA did, or at least tried, was instead of closing down a stadium, they started to close down sections of the stadium. And I thought that was an improvement because at least it tried to empower fans in those sections to self-regulate. It is not perfect, but it is definitely better than closing down stadiums or not letting clubs into tournaments because then you just end up punishing the wrong people.
So yes, there’s a lot that is wrong with relying on clubs or governing bodies imposing sanctions and a lot that is wrong with the principle of strict-liability whereby you punish a club for the behaviour of a very, very small minority of their alleged fans.
ATFIELD: Moreover, under the Belgian Football Safety Act, the competition organisers have responsibilities as well (overall coordination, making means available to the match organisers and taking over from the match organisers if they fail to take the precautionary measures). It seems that the Belgian FA considers that by sanctioning clubs it ‘does its part’. By punishing it considers it is ‘incentivising’ clubs to do more. The concern is that, by doing so, the competition organisers are both ‘judge and jury’ and may be inclined to shift all responsibilities onto the clubs. A sanctioning mechanism should be fully independent from any party with responsibilities in terms of organising safe football matches. Would you agree?
GEOFF PEARSON: That is clearly what Article 6 of the ECHR says. If you have got bodies exercising functions of a public nature and they are sanctioning, then they need to be impartial and independent. There’s a lot of Strasbourg case law confirming that is the case. So yes, there are clear legal problems in terms of whenever you have a party that has a stake, particularly if that’s a commercial stake in the competition, making those kinds of decisions. Yes, that a problem.
ATFIELD: Given the rise in football-related violence, a revision of the Belgian Football Safety is being proposed. The new Football Safety Act will evolve around three pillars: (i) responsibility of the clubs (harsher penalties if there are shortcomings in their camera surveillance system, if they do not comply with rules around ticket sales and if they do not take enough precautions to ban pyrotechnics from the stadium), (ii) harsher sanctions on perpetrators (e.g. physical violence or racism or violence against stewards or emergency services), and (iii) stricter access controls (in addition to proper police officers, stewards and staff of private security firms would be able to perform identity checks). What are your thoughts in this respect?
GEOFF PEARSON: Well, none of the pillars seem to be focused on safety. They seem to be focused on punishment and security. And safety needs to be first and foremost here. When introducing any kind of new regulation, there needs to be an assessment of what is the potential impact on safety. For example, if you are doing identity checks at a turnstile and there is a push around the turnstile, then that is going to make the problem worse and even risk lives. That is the first thing, there is insufficient concern in terms of safety.
“When introducing any kind of new regulation, there needs to be an assessment of what is the potential impact on safety.”
Secondly, it should not all be about punishment. It should be about prevention. We need to find a way of preventing people who are going to a football game from engaging in this kind of behaviour. There needs to be some way of assessing who is posing a risk of displaying such behaviour and how we can prevent them from attending until they can be trusted. Sanctions on individual perpetrators may have an indirect deterrent effect on some fans, but evidence across Europe shows that the impact is actually quite limited.
Ultimately, when you are banning fans, the question is who will be enforcing this, the police or the club? In the UK in 1989, we introduced reporting obligations. Although this is a way of preventing fans attending games, the key thing is that you want to prevent those particular fans from doing this or that again rather than purely punish them. If it is a punishment and you apply it consistently, the local police station risks being quickly overwhelmed including with fans who do not actually pose a risk anymore. The focus needs to be on finding a way of filtering out those fans who maybe have done one thing wrong and have no intention of doing anything wrong again from the fans that pose an ongoing risk in or around football stadiums.
ATFIELD: Repression is one thing. I am wondering if there are other ‘tools’ that law-makers, the policing authorities and/or match or competition organisers have to better control crowd disturbances? Should the classic cry for ‘more repression’ not shift towards more nuanced approaches, with more focus on the social sciences?
GEOFF PEARSON: Absolutely. Knowledge of crowd-science is essential. We know that major crowd disorder occurs at football matches, and in other crowd situations, when the police do not engage positively with crowds when they are peaceful and where the police either have a lack of understanding of the crowd or legitimacy within the crowd. And that means that when disturbances do occur, the police tend to come in with overwhelming force and that tends to exacerbate minor incidents into major incidents.
For instance, that is what happened in Charleroi in 2000 before the game between Germany and England. I was in the main square when the watercannon came in for what was an incredibly minor incident. The police had basically stood back the whole day, they had not entered the crowd, they had not talked to the crowd about the actual levels of risk, which led to an entirely disproportionate response.
You can compare that to, for example, how the German police acted at the 2006 world cup. You can compare that to how the Dutch police policed at EURO 2000. You can compare that to how the Portuguese policed in the host cities of EURO 2004. Those three other examples were based on crowd-science and on how crowds work. And it is all about getting into the crowd, getting it on side, gaining that legitimacy by standing with the crowd.
For example, if you have a crowd and there is a couple of people in the middle starting to fight, the police should be able to then get into the crowd and arrest those two people. It is ridiculous to think that you have to wear full riot gear and go into the crowd en masse, pushing away people that have done nothing wrong. This causes problems. If the police are already in the crowd, then they can spot these incidents even before they occur, they can intervene and their intervention would be seen as being legitimate.
We need far more dialogue, we need far more understanding, we need far more legitimacy. One of the ways you can do that is by having the local police force meeting with the local fan groups in advance and planning their operation together, working out where the actual risks lie around a particular match. Because, ultimately, the fans know their own group, they are together week in, week out. They often know things better than the police. So we need more cooperation between the fans and the police when it comes to how football matches are policed.
“We need far more dialogue, we need far more understanding, we need far more legitimacy.”
ATFIELD: Last weekend, Charleroi fans repeatedly disturbed a home game because of dissatisfaction with their owner. Their club was up 1-0 and will now face a forfeit loss. Supporters start to influence the outcome of games more and more, which in turn leads to integrity issues, the prime example being a team’s supporters and/or supporters of ‘friendly’ foreign hooligan groups clubs infiltrating stands to start rioting and to influence the outcome of games. Is it defendable to have the final result of a game depend on the (mis)behaviour of fans?
GEOFF PEARSON: Yes, I think it is perfectly defendable. I have never heard of an incident where that kind of infiltration that you describe has occurred. Also, if it would occur, then the other fans would know and would not let it pass.
On the fans ‘raising their voice’ and ultimately trying to influence the outcome of games, ultimately this is an issue of fans’ right to protest and its part of the fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. They have a right to be able to carry out peaceful but disruptive protest As, under the European Convention Articles 10 and 11, fans have those rights as long it is peaceful.
In England, for example, Manchester United fans last season stopped the game against Liverpool in protest against the European Super League. That protest was largely peaceful. The match was cancelled and had to be replayed.
The fans are the biggest stakeholders in football. They need the right to engage in effective protest. This is why you need the fans at the heart and centre of the way you handle your security and safety. Fans, as a rule, do not act irrationally. If fans know that a game is going to be forfeited and that outcome will hurt the owners, then that is probably the reason why they are doing it. Fans are thinking long term. It is probably more important to the fans that their club is successful in the longer term rather than in the short term. Manchester United fans in my earlier example were not irrational. They clearly made their decision for the Liverpool game to be called off because they knew it was the biggest game of the season and getting that game called off was going to be a massive statement.
“Fans, as a rule, do not act irrationally. If fans know that a game is going to be forfeited and that outcome will hurt the owners, then that is probably the reason why they are doing it. Fans are thinking long-term.”
ATFIELD: Does it make sense to you to close down a full stadium or complete stands, following crowd disturbances? What about the fans, in that stadium or in that stand, who did not have anything to do with the crowd disturbances?
GEOFF PEARSON: The ideal situation when there are crowd disturbances is that you identify the people causing the trouble and only take action against them. But that is not always possible when you have large-scale crowd disturbances. In that case, essentially, what you want to do is to close down the smallest section and affect the smallest number of innocent fans as you can. And there are two reasons for that. One is that it is just fair. But also because what you are trying to do is that you are trying to change the way in which the fans self-regulate and self-police in those sections. If you are in one end of the stadium and there is a riot going on at the other end of the stadium, there is nothing you can do as a fan to affect the behaviour of those other fans. So why should you be punished? But there are advantages if you close down one section of a ground. It means that, if that section is going to be reopened, then there will be more appetite for self-regulation of those people causing problems in that section. That is why, generally, I like to see much more targeted sanctions and the closing down of sections or blocks rather than a full stadium makes it much more likely that there is going to be self-regulation in the future and much less likely that you will turn the whole of the fan group against whoever is making that decision.
“That’s why, generally, I like to see much more targeted sanctions and the closing down of sections or blocks rather than a full stadium makes it much more likely that there is going to be self-regulation in the future and much less likely that you will turn the whole of the fan group against whoever is making that decision.”
Interview was taken on 16 November 2022.
1 Geoff Pearson is a Professor of Law and Academic Director of the N8 Policing Research Partnership and obtained a PhD on ‘Legal Responses to Football Crowd Disorder' at the University of Lancaster. Geoff regularly speaks and writes on football crowd management.
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