Spotter bother

You'd think with a heavy police presence at least one of the officers would arrest any violent football fans, wouldn't you? Well as Paul Mathews discovered, not even the policemen want to hear about trouble at games

It’s five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in October. You return to your car after a typically fiery local derby, comforted by the presence of a number of uniformed police officers, who stay close to the main contingent of away supporters. However, at some point you must peel off from the main group and negotiate the side streets. Seconds later, a rival supporter suddenly comes alongside you. Seeing several police officers in the distance, you decide to ignore him and keep your head down. The rival fan decides to exorcise his frustration at his own team’s 4-0 stuffing by acquainting his right fist with your face.

Moments later, you arrive breathless and bleeding at the group of officers, drawing attention to the fact that you have been assaulted, and identify your assailant. The officers spring into action, rugby-tackle the offender, slap on the handcuffs, and make an arrest. Or do they?

“We’re spotters,” says one defiantly. You look blank, as there appear to be neither birds nor trains in the immediate vicinity. “We’re not local. We’re from your home town,” says another. You wait, but no further explanation is forthcoming. At last, by the pained expression on his face, you sense that one of them is about to deliver some constructive advice. “Report it at the local police station.”

It transpires that both officers were “football spotters”, working in tandem with the local Football Liaison Officer, whose role was to travel with the away team’s fans and identify potential hooligans. The superintendent investigating your complaint consults a statement from the police’s match commander for the game in question. He says that in his pre-match briefing he specifically instructed the spotters to stay with the away team’s fans, and not to get involved in public order incidents.

At a subsequent meeting with an investigating inspector you are assured that if the complaint is pursued the spotters in question could simply use the match commander’s statement in their defence, and the complaint would be thrown out. An inquiry as to exactly what action the spotters would have taken had the local bank been held up in full view of them is answered by an uninterested shrug. It would be a little optimistic to hope that the raiders were known football hooligans. Frustrated and confused, you turn your attentions to the match commander, and lodge a formal complaint about his pre-match briefing.

In April a letter from the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) arrives, stating that the officers were instructed not to “get involved in general police duties unless absolutely necessary”. Following interviews, the spotters were exonerated. Hardly a shock.

But then you notice that your complaint against the match commander was not even investigated because he was “adhering to a nationally agreed policy”. Further correspondence with the PCA reveals the policy is “not in the public domain” and you are referred to the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

Despite the fact that the NCIS is the first port of call for any police officer wishing to see a copy of the police’s confidential guidelines on police spotting, a detective sergeant from the Football Intelligence Unit claims that football spotters are “nothing to do with us” and suggests there may be guidelines which individual forces interpret in their own way. However, the NCIS guidelines include no mention of a nationally agreed policy.

An unfortunate story. Unfortunate in that I actually experienced it. It has dangerous repercussions for football fans everywhere. Police spotters are not obviously distinguishable  from non-spotters, apart from subtle differences in uniform. Therefore football supporters approaching them for assistance after an assault have little if any way of knowing they have been designated this spotting role.

That any complaint regarding a spotter’s failure to apprehend an assailant can be thrown out on the basis of the match commander’s statement is a cause for concern. More worrying is that match commanders can instruct police spotters “not to get involved in general police duties” based on the aforementioned nationally agreed policy – a policy which doesn’t appear in the NCIS guidelines on police spotting and which is not in the public domain.

Just what “general police duties” covers is anybody’s guess. Were spotters always in plain clothes, working undercover, one might feel more inclined to understand the rationale. But they aren’t. So, apart from raising the matter with your local MP, there isn’t very much the football fan can do. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Sorry, must dash. It’s 4.45pm on a Saturday. I’ve got to hold up the Barclays next to the football ground.

From WSC 139 September 1998. What was happening this month