Deepdale incident: important lessons should be learned

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Following an incident involving away fans and Lancashire Police at Deepdale at the weekend, FSF caseworker Amanda Jacks was invited to a debrief by the force, here is her report...

On Saturday 18th August Preston North End were at home to Stoke City and at half time on the concourse, some officers from Lancashire Police discharged Pava Incapacitant Spray at a small number of Stoke City supporters. Around 30 seconds of footage of the incident that captured the police's’ actions was uploaded onto social media and subsequently went viral.

Later on that evening, PNE’s Dedicated Football Officer, PC Paul Elliott released a short statement on twitter promising an investigation into the incident.

PC Elliot and I have an excellent working relationship - exchanging messages throughout the evening and the next day.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of the incident we quickly agreed that if at all possible we’d like to see positives arising from it. If you follow policing in any context, you’ll appreciate that it is highly unusual for an individual police officer of this rank to acknowledge a controversial incident in this way and issue the apology concerning the wider impact of the incident. It set the tone for what followed. As far as reasonably possible PC Elliot and I agreed that it was important to keep supporters informed of subsequent events and, without prejudicing any internal investigation carried out by Lancs Police, be as open, honest and transparent as possible.

We also understood that policing at PNE has an excellent reputation among fans, particularly away fans, and we knew that it was vital that that reputation was restored as swiftly as possible and ‘bridges built’ where necessary.

Thus followed an invitation to me to attend the debrief at Lancs Police HQ this Tuesday. An invitation was extended to representatives of both football clubs and the English Football League.

Yet again, a precedent was set by Lancs Police by inviting us to the debrief and I’d like to place on record my thanks and appreciation to them for doing so, since I understand that from their perspective, there is always a risk inviting civilians into an internal meeting where sensitive and confidential matters can be raised.

The ‘debrief’ was facilitated by a vastly experienced police officer from the National De-Brief Cadre and attended by officers of all ranks up to Chief Superintendent. All had had an involvement in the fixture in some way or another.

The meeting facilitator made it clear from the start that honesty and openness from all was encouraged and that she expected an environment that wasn’t about blame, rather one that would allow all to get a full understanding of not only what led to the officers’ discharging Pava Spray but an understanding of both the planning process and events on the day from start to finish. Another purpose of the meeting was for all present to take away and action ‘learnings’ from it.

Officers who’d delivered pre-match briefings to their colleagues spoke about how it was stressed – as it always is; that officers should engage positively with supporters, that fans singing is entirely normal and acceptable and that while it was expected some fans would be in various stages of drunkenness, conviviality rather than aggression was to be expected.

Lancs Police were aware that at least six coaches of fans were expected from Blackpool where they’d been drinking most of the day and, one or two minor issues aside, they were not expected to be problematic.
PNE clarified that their briefing to stewards broadly matched that of the police and that all accepted it was vital that both police and stewards were on the same wavelength.

So, fast forward to half time and it was noted that some Stoke City fans were getting boisterous and while it wasn’t threatening, an inappropriate environment was being created. However, even at that stage officers very experienced in attending and policing football recognised that there was no need for their intervention, and that the behaviour being exhibited was no more or less than expected from fans at many other clubs and was in no way sinister. A decision had been made not to serve alcohol at half time which in itself didn’t cause any issues.

In short, the fixture was playing out exactly as all those involved in the planning of the game had anticipated. There were sporadic incidents, but they weren’t major and all parties responsible for safety were happy with levels of interaction and engagement between officers and supporters.

The catalyst for the use of Pava Spray came very soon in to half time. The Police Bronze Command officer overseeing the event was called urgently to the control room. On CCTV around 25 to 30 men were seen kicking and stamping ‘at something’ by an exit door. Simultaneously two stewards who’d seconds before radioed for help, disappeared off the screen and were uncontactable on their radios.

It therefore followed that there was an immediate and genuine concern that the two stewards could be under genuine attack, or in some difficulty or at risk of harm. I asked for clarity about the body language of the those on CCTV, my thinking being that it would be obvious whether they were kicking at a door or people on the floor; the response was no, the belief was two individual stewards were in danger.

At this point Article 2 of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights– the Right to Life – became paramount in consideration in how some officers subsequently acted and responded. While I can’t disclose finer detail due to the Lancs Police’s internal investigations; suffice to say individual officers felt the behaviour of several males on the concourse was becoming increasingly aggressive and that the focus of some of the males was changing and they (the police) were coming under personal attack.

It was believed there was another small potentially disruptive group outside the stadium. Had those people kicking the door, managed to get out, there was a fear it could lead to a more serious situation. Officers on the outside reported that they could see the door straining and buckling under the assault hence the introduction of police dogs outside. Allowing these males out was ‘not an option’ given concerns about the potential for disorder outside the stadium.

Back on the concourse, an order was given to officers to ‘hold a line’ between them and a number of the males. Offices drew their batons to shoulder height. A further instruction was given to consider the use of the Pava Spray; and it was deployed by some officers against the group. Police are advised that spray is likely to cause less injury than a baton strike.

What wasn’t apparent from the short clip that circulated on line was that behind the Stoke City fans visible on screen there were many others. After the spray was used, shields were passed to some of the officers.

The stewards were eventually discovered having taken shelter in the turnstiles, thankfully unharmed.

I asked several questions throughout the process as did Ravi Sharma, Stoke City’s Head of Health, Safety and Security. While all were answered comprehensively it’s not unfair to say that for both of us there are still a couple of questions over the entire incident.

The day after the meeting Lancashire Police released a statement saying that officers had “acted in the honestly held belief that the threat they and others faced made the use of PAVA justified and proportionate.”

"Lessons have been learned including key points about the difficulties that can be experienced communicating effectively in a loud and crowded environment."

While I can see the police are rightly supportive that their officers acted in good faith in the circumstances presented to them, in my opinion it falls just short of endorsing the actions as ‘reasonable and proportionate’.

I too believe that individual officers acted in good faith by deploying the spray. However, since Tuesday I’ve been back and forth in my own mind so many times I’ve lost count and I’m unable to say in all honesty that I agree the use of the Pava was completely proportionate and reasonable.
I’ve read the College of Policing guidelines on the use of Pava and I’m, at best, open minded as to whether or not the guidelines were adhered to at the time.

One thing I am totally sure of, and I shared this opinion with Chief Supt Lawson, is that I believe certain stereotypes about the behaviour and potential actions of ‘hooligans’ played a part, to a greater or lesser degree in some of the decision making by some officers during the duration of the incident.
Notwithstanding that, I also genuinely believe that a degree of lenience and tolerance was displayed through the day by officers on duty although I don’t believe that the incident arose because of that, rather despite it.

Overall, however, I am confident that Lancs Police will genuinely take away a large number of learning points from this incident that will ultimately benefit fans. What happens next for them is now rightfully going to take place behind closed doors; but the significance on how they chose to deal with the incident in the aftermath should not be lost on supporters.

Finally, I can’t conclude this article without making reference to the behaviour of a small number of fans. Those who follow me on twitter will know that from time to time I’ll tweet about the increased anti-social behaviour that we’re seeing on concourses up and down the country and the consequences of that. Sooner or later it was inevitable it was all going to end in tears in some way or another.

Given how reflective Lancs Police have been over this incident I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that some fans too have a think about how they behave and how very real the outcomes of that behaviour can be.

Watching Football Is Not A Crime! is part of the FSF's ongoing drive to monitor the police in their dealings with football fans and work with them to ensure that all fans are treated fairly and within the law. You can contact FSF Caseworker Amanda Jacks via: 

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to PA Images for the picture used in this blog.