Chief Superintendent Owen West kept two Police Support Units (PSUs) made up of 50 “yellow jacketed” officers out of sight during Bradford’s first game of the season against Blackpool this month.
Instead the ‘medium risk’ match was policed using just eight liaison officers, whose job is to engage with home and away fans, build a rapport and solve public order problems without the use of coercion or force.
Earlier this year, The Yorkshire Post reported that ‘police liaison teams’, or PLTs, more commonly deployed at political demonstrations to lower tensions before they reach boiling point, were first seen in West Yorkshire in 2013, the same year the English Defence League held a major rally in Bradford.
A pilot scheme saw them used in four West Yorkshire football matches in 2014, but those supporting the approach say it has not been fully embraced by the force’s leadership.
This season, liaison teams are being used at four pilot matches in West Yorkshire, with evidence gathered at each game about how well their deployments have gone.
Chief Supt West, an experienced silver commander at local football matches, said the liaison officers “took a ‘meet and greet’ role when Blackpool fans arrived instead of the usual reception of yellow jacketed PSUs, and the PLT officers actively engaged, chatted, and welcomed fans to the city”.
The officer said he became a “tad nervous” when a group of Bradford fans considered to be at risk of causing disorder walked into an ‘away’ pub before the game.
He wrote in a blog for Keele University: “Immediately we began to consider deploying our PSU contingency to separate the groups but, and this is the point, we weren’t in the moment, the conversation, banter and engagement with the fans; we commanders couldn’t ‘feel’ it.
“But our PLTs were right ‘in the mix’. The liaison officers assured me it was OK, that they were on top of the situation - and they were right.
“Consequently, there was no intervention by public order cops, no escalation on our part, because the assessment of risk was dynamic and detailed.
“So there were ‘risk fans’ from both teams present but our PLTs were in the pub, they were managing the interactions and preventing what was ultimately an unnecessary tactical escalation on the part of the police.
“They were not just policing the fans but also ‘policing the police’, if you will. We let it run. It was a risk worth taking. Indeed at one point one of our PLT colleagues orchestrated a ‘sing-song’ between the two sets of fans in the away pub.
“The policing style was such that a small team of liaison officers were sufficient to maintain that sort of atmosphere in a pub that never usually sees a mix between home and away, and it set the tone for the rest of the day.”
He said he was able to stand down one of his two PSUs before the match because he was increasingly confident there would not be disorder, and stood down the remaining unit before the match ended.
Chief Supt West wrote: “The liaison officers bid farewell as the coach doors [for the away supporters] opened. They were thanked. They were appreciated. As some fans said, they were ‘mint’.
“In taking feedback from the PLTs in the debrief they reflected on how positive the fans had been about them, one fan even lamenting ‘if only police everywhere could be like this’.”
He added that there was potential for disorder, and though it was too early to say why this didn’t happen, “my very early view is that the difference this time was the PLTs”.
The officer said: “They delivered a number of benefits including enhanced understanding of ‘risk’, better engagement with fans, enhanced problem solving capability, improved perceptions of police legitimacy among the fans, the capacity to redeploy substantial police resources (i.e. potential cost savings) to name a few.”
He added: “Other fixtures are planned for this approach as we learn more. There are far too many variables yet to declare success. Only a fool would do so.
“Each one at some stage or another will be a risk for the force and for the Commander. Each one will be a hostage to fortune with no shortage of ‘I told you so’ in the wings.
“But it was ever thus in policing. Reforms don’t come without risk and courage, and so the work continues.”