Last week we saw the ugly side of the beautiful game return; images of wanton violence by football hooligans in Marseille at the start of the Euros.
Although only a minority were involved, the trouble tarnishes all football fans who become by default a hated group viewed with suspicion, even hatred, by the police and the public at large. The fans’ comfort, conditions and even their civil liberties are ignored. They can be herded, corralled, subjected to casual violence and anything can be believed of them.
It is against this backdrop that the prospect of bringing a successful action against the police on behalf of a football fan accused of hooliganism or disorder could look hopeless especially in the absence of compelling CCTV footage or other evidence.
Step forward Chris, a man of exemplary character from Birmingham. Chris supports Birmingham City FC (someone has to!) and has done since he was a lad.
On the 16 January 2011, Chris, then 23 years old, had been in a pub situated close to the City ground in Birmingham with friends watching the televised derby match between Birmingham City and Aston Villa. During the game, he drank 4 pints of lager. At the end of the match Chris and his friends left the premises to meet up with another friend who had been to the match itself. The group joined thousands of other fans who were heading away from the ground.
The group passed another ‘Birmingham City’ pub, outside which a large number of supporters had gathered. There was also a large contingent of uniformed Police Officers decked out in full riot gear. For whatever reason, the Police officers began to surround the group and usher them forward and away from the pub believing that trouble was going to erupt between the 2 groups (quite why, is a mystery as both groups of fans supported Birmingham City).
So as to achieve their objective, the officers began to use their shields to push Chris and his friends along.
Here’s Chris’ description of what happened next;
“A number of police officers began to surround us. The officers were wearing uniforms, fluorescent jackets and helmets and carrying round shields. Initially they began to shout “move on” even though we hadn’t stopped moving forward at any time. Then they started to repeatedly and aggressively push us using their shields, shouting “Move on” despite the fact that we were still moving along voluntarily.
One officer was immediately behind me. He was Asian, approximately 6’ 2”, medium build, in his early 30s. He pushed me with his shield 2 or 3 times hitting my back and elbows really hard, so much so that I was shunted forwards.
A second officer who was white, smaller, about 5’ 8” and in his early 40s came running from behind the Asian officer and began pushing me forwards, hitting me harder with his shield, up to 10 times. Again, I was shunted forward and caused to trip and stumble.
The force used by the 2 officers and their colleagues against me and the others in the group was wholly unnecessary. We were voluntarily moving forwards at all times and posed no threat to anyone else. They seemed to be hitting us for the sake of it.
I was becoming increasingly annoyed. I turned to the white police officer and put my right hand onto his shield and asked him to stop pushing. I shouted “fuck off, we’re moving”.
I turned around with a view to proceeding forward when the officer used his shield and hit me yet again.
I turned to remonstrate again and when I did, I noticed a third officer come charging towards me from the back and in between several police officers including the white officer referred to above.
As the officer charged, he raised his shield above his head, turning it sideways and slammed it into the right side of my head. With the force of the blow, I stumbled backwards. I turned and the officer then hit me again a second time, to the rear of my head at the bottom of my skull/top of my neck.
Chris realised that he was bleeding. He had a throbbing pain in his head and neck. He was shocked and outraged as were his friends. He staggered away. Despite his obvious injuries, no officer stepped forward to offer first aid or assistance. Chris and his friends walked on to a nearby pub where he tended to his injuries and took a photograph. Later, he returned home. It so happens that his sister, a serving Police officer with a different police force was visiting their parents. She accompanied Chris to hospital. Whilst waiting to be treated, she had the good sense to write down his detailed account of events. He was later examined; a 1.5cm cut to the right cheek was noted. The wound was cleansed and closed with glue. The laceration left an indented scar which was cosmetically disfiguring and permanent. In addition to the laceration/scar, Chris suffered daily headaches which gradually resolved over the months ahead.
Notwithstanding Chris’ detailed description of events, it is important to bear in mind that;
- he accepts that he had drank 4 pints during the course of a relatively short period of time (1 ½ – 2 hours) immediately before the incident;
- he accepts that he verbally remonstrated with officers and physically grabbed an officer’s shield;
- this was a volatile football derby game which inevitably carried with it a perceived high risk of football related violence or disorder;
- the Police are present in large numbers supposedly to protect not injure;
- there was reportedly no CCTV footage of the incident.
Although Chris was a man of good character who could provide cogent witness evidence, in context, to an outside observer, the prospects of a successful civil action against the Police might seem slim.
Unfortunately, when the offending Police Officer’s evidence is considered, that outside observer might conclude the prospects of success were next to impossible because of course the officer who struck Chris, Sergeant A gave a very different account;
“As we pushed the group back, I saw one of the group stand still and face towards us. He grabbed out and grabbed hold of my Police shield as I pushed towards him. I told the male to “move back”. I saw the male’s body weight drop and his eyes became fixated on me. His shoulders dropped and his fists were clenched. I honestly believed the male was going to attack me. The male then shouted “Come on then you cunt”. At that point I was two feet away from the male. I was unable to reach for any of my personal safety equipment due to holding my police shield. My visor was down on my public order helmet. Due to the nature of the incident and the weather conditions my visor was slightly steamed up and my visibility was not as clear as normal. I used my shield and punched out with the front of the shield which impacted on the male’s face. The front of the shield made a direct hit with the male’s face which immediately stunned him. I hit the male as hard as I could, but only struck him to the face once. I would describe the male as being 6 foot 2 inches tall, 25 years of age, dark hair, thick set.”
Other officers offered some corroboration for Sergeant A’s account.
The Inspector on duty reported as follows;
“As they reached the bus stops underneath the railway bridge, some of the group were leaning back against the shields, trying to stop. Officers had to physically push them with their shields to keep them moving, as I instructed. I saw one youth in particular, face the officers and push back hard at the shields. He continually shouted at the officer directly in front of him telling him to “fuck off!”. I was 10 – 15 yards from this and I saw the officer to be Sergeant A. I saw Sergeant A push hard with his shield held in front of him in a correct, trained, manner, forcing this youth backwards, preventing him from stopping. I could hear Sergeant A shouting clearly “move back” and “get back”. The youth was resisting going backwards and tried to grab Sergeant A’s shield”.
Later on, he noticed the same youth who by now “had a small trickle of blood to his left cheek. I recognised this youth to be the same one that was pushing at Sergeant A’s shield as he was the most aggressive and volatile amongst them. The injury was so minor I did not feel he required medical attention.
From the very start of the policing operation, including the match ‘briefing’, it had been stressed that officers must be robust but fair in their policing style. It is my opinion that Sergeant A had performed his role in exactly the manner which I, and West Midlands Police, expected.
I have performed a number of duties as a PSU Commander with Sergeant A as one of my Serial Officers. He has an excellent leadership style and receives a great amount of respect from his team. When I perform PSU Commander duties at …………. football matches, Sergeant A is one of the first names on my list that I would want on my PSU. This is because I can rely on his firm policing style at times when it is needed but in a proportionate manner.
In relation to the allegation that Sergeant A had used excessive force I can say that I completely and utterly dispute the allegations. If I had felt that Sergeant A had acted inappropriately I would have dealt with the incident myself”.
The Asian officer described by Chris added further corroboration; he said he was “looking in the direction of Sergeant A and said to him, “Come on then you cunt”. I could see that he looked extremely aggressive and he had his fists clenched. Sergeant A then hit him with his shield towards his face. This appeared to have the desired effect and the male moved on”. Other officers gave a similar account.
Shortly after the incident, Chris lodged a formal complaint. 6 months later, Chris received a 20 page investigation report. It transpired that another officer present had misgivings about the conduct of Sergeant A and no doubt in difficult circumstances had reported Sergeant A to his Inspector who in turn reported to Professional Standards.
Sergeant X recorded that;
“I directed my serial to gently nudge the group with their shields to push them up the road… As we were doing this the serial, which consisted of 6 officers plus myself were explaining to the group why they needed them to move. I noticed the other serial headed by Sergeant A were also using their shields to nudge the group up the road. My serial was at the front/side of the group and I was situated behind them so I could monitor the group. Sergeant A’s serial was behind the group containing them. Both serials were moving the group away from the ground. As we were moving the group they were somewhat reluctant and slow moving, two or three members of the group began to take exception to our actions and question our intentions, they were using phrases such as “stop fucking pushing us”…. They wasn’t being aggressive, just ‘arsey’ swearing at us. At this point we continued to nudge the group gently up the road. One officer from the serial to my left… ran through the others quickly and hit male 1 with the flat of his shield in his back. I noticed that this was Sergeant A…. At the time male 1 had turned to face and ask “what the fuck you pushing us for?” as he has turned that is when Sergeant A moved forward to strike him in the back. He hit male 1 hard as he stumbled violently forwards and managed to stay on his feet by putting his hands on the wall underneath the railway bridge. When this male re-gained his balance he turned toward Sgt A and said “what the fuck did you do that for you twat?”…. Sergeant A has then struck male 1 again causing him to stagger backwards. Male 1 then remonstrated with Sergeant A as to why he kept hitting him…. Male 1 was still shouting…. clearly unhappy with what had happened, his hands were open and not making a fist and although very vocal he was not offering any physical threat…. I then saw Sergeant A turn his shield so that the edge/rim was pointing towards the male 1. I know this technique is taught in public order and is called ‘Blading’. This is taught to be used only when encountering serious levels of violence and as a last resort. Sergeant A has pulled the shield back above his head and struck the male with it. Both strikes were towards the male’s head and face area on the right side…. I felt Sergeant A wasn’t in any danger throughout the incident and felt that his use of force in this situation was inappropriate.”
Another officer who was in Sergeant X’s serial also said that he “saw a round shield above officers’ heads at one point” but that he could not identify the officer it belonged to.
Notwithstanding Chris’ account and that of Sergeant X, the Professional Standards Report dismissed the complaint by concluding;
“Sergeant A describes Chris as standing directly in front of him and threatening him directly. The accounts provided by the Asian officer corroborate Sergeant A.
It must be noted that when officers use any ‘use of force’ technique it is the responsibility of that individual officer to account for and justify that action based upon their perception of the incident.
The incident was obviously volatile with a potential for major disorder. Whilst Chris states that he was moving on as requested; he clearly was offering some resistance to simply moving on. In the circumstances, Sergeant A therefore used necessary force. Sergeant A has stated that he felt in fear of his safety based upon his perception of the incident.
Whilst the area targeted by Sergeant A raises some concern, the question to be addressed is whether the force used is actually excessive. The investigating officer feels that having considered all of the evidence; the force used upon Chris by Sergeant A was necessary, proportionate and reasonable in the circumstances.
Really? Even allowing for some resistance from Chris, or at worst, threatening behaviour, was the officer’s use of his riot shield as an offensive weapon necessary, proportionate and reasonable in the circumstances? In my opinion this was a typical Police ‘whitewash’ of a legitimate complaint. The report’s conclusions were nothing other than perverse.
Chris lodged an appeal to the Independent Watchdog, the IPCC. On review, the case worker concluded that Sergeant A had, on the balance of probability used the edge of his shield to hit Chris. The case worker went on; “The use of the edge of the shield is a recognised method and (force) guidance quotes that “In certain circumstances where the officer feels that there is no other alternative available to them and it is reasonable in the circumstances and absolutely necessary to the level of force being used or threatened, then the edges of the shield can be used by being driven towards the offender. This use must be the minimum amount necessary and proportionate to the seriousness of the circumstances they find themselves in”.
In the circumstances, the Professional Standards Department’s findings were overturned and the IPCC directed that Sergeant A be reprimanded.
On Chris’s instructions, I subsequently brought a civil claim for compensation against West Midlands Police. The initial response of West Midlands Police was to neither admit or deny liability but offer £750.
Notwithstanding the findings of the IPCC, it was clear that West Midlands Police were not going to properly compensate Chris without a fight.
On Chris’s behalf, I issued Court proceedings. Although West Midlands Police then belatedly admitted liability they continued to fail to recognise the serious nature of their officer’s misconduct and the implications this would have as regards the likely award of damages that a Court would make. After a succession of offers and only a short while before the final hearing, West Midlands Police offered and Chris accepted a final settlement of £17,500 plus costs.
So justice was done; but not before the police had – as is their habitual practice – closed ranks against Chris and tried to deny his legitimate complaint. Where would we have been without the honesty of Officer X, who did the right thing and spoke out against wrongdoing by one of his colleagues? Frankly, in my experience, too few officers are willing to speak up or criticise their fellow officers in these situations. The eventual settlement reached with the police was over 20 times as much as their initial offer. There was absolutely no need for the Police to drag this matter out as long as they did, but it seems that the general police mentality when faced with a case like Chris’s is that in these situations, any fan who gets injured ‘must’ by definition have been doing something wrong. Given this aggressive ‘us versus them’ approach to the policing of football fans, cases of police brutality subsequently compounded by a prejudiced refusal to admit any fault on their part, are sadly all too common.