It is a slightly surreal experience, sitting inside the briefing room at Halesowen Police Station, listening to members of the West Midlands Police Football Unit discuss their specialist intelligence on potential fan trouble ahead of the night game at the Hawthorns.
It’s 3pm on October 15, and kick off in the Midlands derby between West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham is just under five hours away.
This is heavily restricted access. Police intelligence officers only.
We’ve been allowed special dispensation to attend, as part of a wider report by Sky Sports News on the role of the country’s first football-specific hate crime officer.
PC Stuart Ward is sitting intently in that briefing, listening to how all officers should use their body cams at all times, how the spotter teams should engage with known troublemakers early in the local pubs, how some Birmingham fans are bizarrely planning to arrive at the game by barge on an elaborate booze cruise…
Since January, PC Ward’s role has changed. He doesn’t, like the rest of his unit, deal primarily with football disorder. Instead, his job is dedicated to combatting hate crime in the sport.
While it s something the whole force is primed to look out for, alongside all other football-related offences, any reports of discriminatory abuse at West Midlands football matches, or towards footballers online, will be investigated by PC Ward.
“It’s taking that initial report, collating evidence,” he explained. “Taking statements, working with the players and clubs, identifying offenders. Then it’s working with the Crown Prosecution Service and looking to take matters to court, and bring people to justice.
“The football unit realised they wanted a specialist officer to deal with hate crime offences. Whether that be racism, homophobia, gender discrimination or religious discrimination.”
Scepticism from professional footballers is obvious
PC Ward admits there is a lot of scepticism from many professional footballers towards the police and criminal justice system. That scepticism is very obvious when you talk to Birmingham City striker Troy Deeney and Aston Villa captain Tyrone Mings.
“I think we have got a long way to go until some faith is restored in the CPS about actually jailing or bringing to justice the number of messages that are sent,” Mings said.
Deeney told me he is being racially abused online 30-40 times every week, saying: “Easy. Whether that’s a picture of me, my kids or my missus – there’s no limits to people’s anger and where they will vent that.
“I’m a marmite individual, some people love me, some people don’t,” Deeney continued. “You can talk about my footballing ability as much as you want. I just don’t understand why you have to talk about the colour of my skin.”
I asked Deeney how it makes him feel, when he is subjected to such regular, repeated hate online.
“There’s an angry Hulk-kid inside me that wants to smash everything. Then there’s a side of me that gets sad,” came his reply.
“Maybe that’s the age of me, and the parent inside me – it’s a sad state of affairs that people go online and feel they can say whatever they want, however they want, and there’s no repercussions for it.”
And for Mings: “Yeah, for my family, it certainly affects them a lot more than it affects me. It will never be nice for anybody to read something so hateful or derogatory about their loved one.”
Mings: Cases have slipped through the net
The Police and CPS hailed the jailing of Simon Silwood in October as a landmark moment in their fight against hate crime. Silwood had called WBA midfielder Romaine Sawyers a “baboon” in a WhatsApp group, and was sent to prison for eight weeks, four of which were suspended.
“One person is jailed for it? That doesn’t fill me with any confidence whatsoever,” says Mings, emphatically.
“Just because it’s the first. That means a lot have slipped through the net, because if you look at what he said, and you look at other cases on social media where people have said similar things, there would be a case for you to go and round people up in their dozens and take them to court.”
West Bromwich Albion vs Birmingham City
Back in the Midlands, intelligence briefing finished, we are inside the police car heading for the Hawthorns, where PC Ward explains Phase 1 of the matchday policing operation.
“We will do a walk round through the local pubs, chat to supporters, see if any of them are known to us. Phase 1 is really important, because it’s about that visibility and getting out there to be a preventative tool.
“There are no real issues that we know of between the two sets of supporters around discrimination, hate crime. Both sets of supporters are made up from all different backgrounds, and predominantly they get on quite well.
“We might not see any issues tonight – I don’t know, but we will react to whatever is reported to us.”
Phase 1 passes quietly. No trouble, despite lots of drinking among both sets of supporters. Phase 2 begins once all officers are inside the ground.
And mid-way through the second half, shortly after Albion have taken the lead, PC Ward is alerted to an incident by a steward.
“We’ve had a report of racist abuse, aimed at footballers on the pitch. We need to identify who they are, get them out, take their details and go from there,” he tells me.
A West Bromwich Albion fan has told a steward via text message that someone sitting behind him has used racist language, directed at the Birmingham players.
“The control room are aware of it,” PC Ward explains. “They’re just checking CCTV pictures, and when the offenders are identified, they will be arrested.”
‘Funny to accuse them of racism’
But then, as police officers are preparing to move in, the supporter changes his story.
“We’ve just been told it was a joke, a prank. He knows the people sitting behind him and he thought it would be funny to accuse them of racism. I’ll update control, but there’s no racism.”
West Brom win the game 1-0. There are some minor disturbances as the Birmingham supporters make their way away from the Hawthorns to the local train station, but no arrests. And no more reports of hate crime.
Though that situation changes within hours.
The next morning, PC Ward is back at Halesowen Police Station, and so am I. He explains that, after the game, another report of racist abuse has come in. And this one is no hoax.
Our cameras are there as PC Ward interviews the witness on the phone. A Birmingham City supporter goes into detail about how he saw a West Brom supporter making monkey gestures towards a black away fan. He says he’s prepared to make a statement, and go to court if necessary to provide evidence. He says he’s disgusted by what he saw.
The police spotter cameras think they managed to film the incident taking place, and PC Ward is uploading the images. They seem to match what the Birmingham fan has alleged.
“He’s corroborated everything we have on the footage, says he saw the man scratching his cheeks which he feels was mimicking a baboon, and then he says the supporter put his arms out wide, as if he was imitating a gorilla.”
In the following days, having taken a full statement from the witness, PC Ward interviews the suspect under caution. He denies making any racist gestures.
The investigation is ongoing, but PC Ward is confident the man will be charged. “Seeing how cases are prosecuted and what everyone is looking at evidentially,” he tells me, “we have got a good chance of prosecution with this one.”
‘False and malicious’
Meanwhile, PC Ward is back on duty at Wolves vs West Ham. It’s Saturday, November 20.
We again follow him and his colleagues through a fairly quiet pre-match, and no incidents are reported during the game itself, which Wolves win 1-0 thanks to a goal from Raul Jimenez. But as the 28,000 fans are streaming away from Molineux, there’s a report of more racist abuse that comes through on the police radio.
“We think this one is from a home supporter towards an away supporter,” I’m told. “Use of the “N” word and some form of monkey gesture.
“The club are looking at CCTV footage as we speak. We’ve sent officers to the executive box where the incident is alleged to have happened. No one has been arrested at this stage, there’s no need. We are happy we have the alleged offender’s details, we know who he is, so we can get a detailed statement from the witness and go from there.”
The next day, when PC Ward tries to contact the witness, he changes his story. He said he might have been mistaken. He didn’t have his glasses on at the time.
The report is filed under “false and malicious”.
PC Stuart Ward – cases since January 2021:
- 119 reports of hate crime in football
- 44 accounts identified as originating abroad, and passed on to foreign police forces
- 6 individuals charged with offences, of which 4 have been convicted and 2 are due in court in the New Year
- 6 cases have been passed to other UK police forces
- 2 individuals have been placed on educational programmes
- 3 cases are currently being assessed for charge by the CPS
- 57 cases have been filed due to lack of evidence, or witnesses unwilling to provide statements.
- 16 cases remain under investigation