West Yorkshire Police is training officers to increase the number who can act as a link between the force and supporter groups, as well as providing on-the-ground intelligence on fans’ activities, at Leeds United, Huddersfield Town and Bradford City.
The aim of the pilot scheme, being run this season, is that fewer police officers are needed elsewhere at the grounds and the overall cost to the force is reduced.
It is also hoped that the extra spotters, known officially as ‘football intelligence officers’, can “build rapport and engagement with crowds and in particular those sections who may present risk of disorder or violence”.
The move has been praised by a case worker from a group representing football supporters, while a senior police officer has said he is “keen to see the findings” of the new approach.
Policing football matches is a considerable expense for local police forces. A dispute between Leeds United and West Yorkshire Police over who should pay for policing on the streets and car parks near Elland Road had to be settled in court, with the force told to pay more than £1m to the club.
The case is said by some to have set a legal precedent for other areas of the country, meaning that forces can now only charge on areas owned, leased or controlled by the club.
In 2015, police warned that it was getting harder to meet the cost of covering football matches after research showed the amount clubs are paying forces nationwide has fallen 20 per cent over the last three seasons.
Bills paid by some of the biggest clubs in the country have fallen even more significantly, including Leeds United, whose payments to West Yorkshire Police nearly halved from £878,124 in 2012/13 to £477,476 during 2014/15.
Arsenal paid £466,062 to the Metropolitan Police, down from £923,462, while Manchester United’s payments to Greater Manchester Police fell from £1,154,557 to £656,710 over the same period.
West Yorkshire Police has launched a pilot scheme where extra spotters are deployed at some fixtures in the county, depending on the risk of disorder. The force currently has 22 spotters working in varying roles across the force, but is planning to train more.
Spotters’ duties previously focused on intelligence gathering about potentially disorderly supporters, but their role is now expanding to include engagement work with fans.
Their uniform is recognisable due to the outer jacket they wear which has an upper blue section in addition to the main body of high-vis yellow, though occasionally they wear a blue tactical vest.
In 2013, West Yorkshire Police apologised to fans of Hull City and Huddersfield Town for “any upset or inconvenience” caused by travel restrictions imposed on them.
The force limited tickets for Hull City fans for the club’s clash with Huddersfield Town in March and made them travel on official coaches. Supporters of both sides described the sanctions as “draconian”.
Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom told The Yorkshire Post: “In recent years, West Yorkshire Police, in common with other UK police forces, has been developing our police liaison capability in support of public events, including protest and sporting events. We have worked with Professor Clifford Stott, who has pioneered research in this area.
“The essence of the approach to build rapport and engagement with crowds and in particular those sections who may present risk of disorder or violence, with a view to encouraging responsible and lawful behaviour and better levels of public safety.
“In addition to improving public safety, there can also be opportunities to deploy fewer police officers, allowing them to remain working in their normal neighbourhood and reducing the cost of these events to the public purse.
“The proposal aimed to further develop police liaison work within football matches across West Yorkshire with these goals. The proposals is on-going throughout the 2016/17 season and therefore the outcomes are not yet known.
“This includes cost, as differing match profiles mean that the deployment of spotters/police liaison teams is not always required or beneficial.”
Amanda Jacks, a case worker with the Football Supporters’ Federation, said: “I think this is brilliant. Ultimately football is a community event and should be policed as such.
“The fact that West Yorkshire Police are deploying liaison officers is a very helpful move away from policing football as a public order exercise.
“The recent football arrest figures bear out the fact that the overwhelming majority of football fans go to football to do nothing more than enjoy the game and have a good day out.”
National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Football Policing, Assistant Chief Constable Mark Roberts, said: “Forces will review the threat level for each fixture and plan a suitable policing response to manage this.
“This can range from no officers being deployed through to a very heavy police presence if there is a serious risk of disorder.
“Typically when forces do deploy large numbers of officers to keep people safe, not just at the stadium but in the surrounding areas, it is at significant cost to the force either in financial terms or by drawing officers from other duties.
“If forces can find ways of reducing this burden while keeping the public safe and preventing crime and disorder then it is a positive step. I will be keen to see the findings from West Yorkshire’s approach.”