Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Policing policy under the spotlight after violent clashes

On the pitch Brighton were a shambles. Off the pitch, the policing was not much better.

Despite everyone in Sussex knowing it would end in tears the club and the police decided to let both sets of fans out at the same time. Not only that, but around 100 Palace fans were allowed to congregate at the foot of the stairs outside the away end and abuse all the Albion fans walking by.

The fact it did not go off there was more luck than judgement. Both sets of fans were thrust together by the bottleneck at the stairs and had any of the passing Brighton fans taken the bait, there would have been some serious disorder. The fact that it was less than 10 foot from the lift which our disabled fans have to wait for did not seem to matter. Had it kicked off there, a lot of people in wheelchairs would have been caught up in it.

As it was I saw at least two fights in the short walk from the West Stand Upper to the away end, with at least a 100 yard stretch with no police or stewards. One Brighton fan threw a punch and got more than a few back for his trouble - as well as a kick or two before the police arrived.

Coin and stone throwing mixed with scuffles on the approach to Falmer Station only added to the decidedly 1980s post-match feel.

All of it though could have been avoided if the police and club had just held the away fans in for half an hour. There had already been trouble before the game in the city centre and the local press reported a home fan needed medical help outside the ground moments before kick-off. The police had managed to keep rival firms apart when it threatened to get out of hand earlier on Queens Road, but tensions were still sky-high by the time the match kicked off.

During the game parts of the away end were smashed up. In the home end a fan ran all of 30 yards to land a few punches on a rival in the away end. If any further clues pointing toward the potential for trouble were needed surely these were them?

Further fights in and around Brighton Station saw the number of arrests rise to 28 - for affray, drunk and disorderly, assault, possession of drugs, public order offences and breaching a football banning order.

Some context is needed. There were more than 20,000 people at the Amex (not more than 22,000 as the police report - clearly not having paid much attention to the official attendance). There will also be some elements of both support bases who will go out of their way to fight.

However, for any of the people who were caught up in the disturbances, things could clearly have gone a lot better.

Nevertheless, Brighton and Hove Divisional Commander, Chief Superintendent Graham Bartlett was thought the local force was well prepared.

Speaking the morning after the night before he said: "We were aware from intelligence and history that last night's game was going to be a big event for both sets of fans and so, together with the club and British Transport Police we planned the policing operation accordingly.

"We have been working closely with Brighton Albion Football Club (note: not Brighton & Hove Albion than?) since the fixtures were announced to insure that this was a safe event and I am pleased to report that at this stage, we have not received any reports of serious injury to fans and/or police officers despite CCTV footage showing officers and horses having missiles thrown at them.

"The vast majority of fans who attended the match caused no problems and were there to watch the football and enjoy the community event. We would like to thank them for their support and co-operation. I would also like to thank the football club and our colleagues at British Transport Police for their involvement and continued support.

"Sussex Police will continue to work with the club and share information. Policing levels for all fixtures are assessed on a match-by-match basis in conjunction with the club and using the intelligence available, policing levels are adjusted accordingly. Any officers deployed to police football games are in addition to those who are already scheduled to work and are not at the expense of normal policing coverage in our the local communities. The cost of any policing within the stadium and its immediate surrounds is met by the football club."

An extra 200 policemen were on duty and 100 fans were stopped and searched on their way to the ground.

The fact remains though that much of the trouble could have been prevented had the powers that be not adopted such a naive approach to a fixture which has always brought with it the potential for off-the-pitch violence.

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