‘Policing football is too important to be left to the police’

The West Ham United Supporters’ Trust will continue being a ‘critical friend’ to the Met Police

Football fans sometimes have a difficult relationship with the police. The Rossers know it and have many initiatives to build trust, such as dedicated football officers for each club.

But there are wider and less public ways in which fans and senior police officers can share knowledge and experience and fans can get to hear, first hand, about policing of matches. It would be an exaggeration to claim that fans get to police the police but there are forums for frank exchanges of views.

The police sometimes share information that is confidential and operationally sensitive. The West Ham United Supporters’ Trust (WHUST) has two board members cleared to meet with the Metropolitan Police’s Independent Advisory Group (IAG) for football.

The Met’s football IAG is based in Lambeth and covers the whole of Greater London. The Met is responsible for policing any football match within its jurisdiction, irrespective of competition or league. The IAG allows supporter representatives from every football club in the 32 London boroughs to offer independent advice, to help the police provide a better service in their communities. It is where fans get equal billing with the Old Bill.

These meetings provide ongoing constructive dialogue between the Met Police, British Transport Police and football fans. The IAG provides opportunities for questions to be answered, for strategies to be developed, discussed, explained and agreed and to develop common understandings around policing issues.

The IAG is designed to be a forum where the supporter representatives can together act as a ‘critical friend’ to the police. We can offer advice and review police policy, procedure, and practices as they relate to football.

The IAG is not party political and draws on a wide range of volunteers with a variety of perspectives. Officers from different parts of the police attend different meetings to outline their areas of expertise.

For example, the terrorism officer was unable to attend a meeting in the autumn due to a heightened risk of terrorist activity. He was able to attend in January. While much of his presentation is public information and published online, meeting attendees are subject to the Official Secrets Act and agree not to share details until approved minutes are circulated.

The IAG is led by members of independent supporters’ associations and trusts and provides a structured opportunity to build a working partnership with the Metropolitan and British Transport Police. Two members of the board of WHUST are registered with the IAG to ensure that West Ham fans are always represented.

Topics covered at IAG meetings include categorisation of fixtures according to risk level, use of body-worn equipment and facial recognition technology, legislative changes affecting the policing of football, and division of responsibilities between stewards and police. Other topics include drugs at grounds, violence against women and girls, racism, anti-semitism, and homophobia.

Take the issue of match categorisations, it’s rarely simple. Some matches are always considered high risk – Arsenal v Spurs, for example. But Arsenal v Chelsea is generally considered medium risk. The police won’t accept a high-risk match being moved for TV scheduling to 5.30pm on a Saturday as the extra drinking time increases the risk.

The police won’t want two high-risk games in London at the same time. A game that is normally a lower risk can become higher risk for a number of reasons. One of the clubs chasing the Premier League title, for example, can increase tensions, raising the risk only at the end of the season – as happened with Arsenal v Chelsea last season.

Two visiting away teams that clash can raise the risk even if both home matches are not themselves normally an issue. But a risk can be lowered if a reduced number of away fans are travelling. The police are making these decisions individually about each match based on the circumstances and intelligence.

All of this can have a knock-on effect on other games and cause late rescheduling to enable the police requirements and those of the broadcasters to mesh. The needs of the fans often come last, but it is at these meetings that this can be discussed.

WHUST might have strong views on certain policing issues, but the IAG is not a place for grand-standing – it is for calm, sensible communication. We always seek the best available compromise that causes the least impact on fans. We make a small, often unseen difference.

IAGs were a product of the Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, published in 1999. The report recommended several legislative changes including a process to create a partnership with all sections of the community, encouraging the active involvement of people from diverse groups.

The first IAG was established by the Met Police in 1998 in anticipation of the publication of the Macpherson Report the following year. More than 20 years on, IAGs are a recognised part of how the Met Police engages with communities to improve the police service for London.

Apart from football, there are IAGs for people with disabilities, gun crime (Trident Advisory Group), race and LGBTQ+. WHUST believes that policing football is too important to be left to the police.

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