Eric Stuart QPM, Director of Gentian Events Ltd, has observed an alarming post-Covid deterioration in public behaviour – and the Government seems to agree.
Some people are on the pitch…they think it’s all over. Well, it is now for football fans who break the law.
It will soon be punishable by a criminal record and a club ban after a worrying recent trend in incursions led to painful memories of football’s darker days of football ‘hooliganism’ which marred the British game for years and earned an English club ban abroad, following the 1985 Heysel disaster.
The government is keen for a swift clampdown on disorder before it escalates. It will be harder, for instance, to buy smoke bombs and flares while the Premier League, English Football League and Football Association also want the Home Office to take action against fan-filmed videos of the violence, with TikTok and Twitter cited as key targets.
Clubs and other sporting and leisure venues will have to use top-notch security technology to seek out and identify suspects.
Someone who knows the massive logistical, technical and planning complexities of large public events is Eric Stuart, a former long-serving Metropolitan Police beat booby, who moved to a back office at the Met after a serious motorbike injury nearly left him paralysed.
Recover he did and was tasked to deliver the police operations for the Notting Hill Carnival, New Year’s Eve and the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay.
He and colleagues have seen upturn in public disorder since the restrictions under Coronavirus were lifted.
Speaking exclusively to SJUK, Stuart said: “As there is no full empirical study, we need to trust our people on the ground. They’re telling us that it is a difficult place to work in because public behaviour has deteriorated since Covid.
“Undoubtedly, there has been a significant change in behaviour at many events. Impatience, less tolerance for others and almost a level of entitlement.
“What is new is the public’s lack of trust in us. Someone became ill at a football match recently and the public decided the two medics in attendance were not sufficient and so took to the pitch to draw attention to it.
“It is manifesting itself in a significant increase in crowd disorder and bad behaviour with the crowd using the power of numbers to achieve their objectives. They are making decisions far quicker and stronger than they ever were before.
“So, yes, there is more disorder and we certainly saw that at the end of the last soccer season and throughout the summer. Even at the normally placid Commonwealth Games, staff and volunteers have been abused and even left in tears at some venues because of a public aggression.
“This is not at every event and I would not want to get into comparing events with each other but it is many events, across the spectrum. If the public do not feel they are being looked after they will let you know about it quicker than they would have before.”
After recovering from his 2001 accident (his spine was separated from his pelvis), Stuart returned to the Met where he planned large scale police operations around huge public events, culminating in a 70-day stint providing protective security during the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay across the country for the torchbearers, the flame and the torch.
Stuart really grew to understand the skills required for big outdoor events when London’s New Year’s Eve in 2005 nearly went horribly wrong, a so-called ‘black swan’.
He explains: “Tens of thousands tried to enter Westminster tube station just after the fireworks finished. I’m still astonished no fatalities occurred as people from all directions sought to squeeze through a tight funnel (the underground doors) with children and babies being passed over crowds.”
Stuart undertook a degree in crowd safety management at Buckingham New University as a result.
After serving 33 years in the Met, he founded Gentian Events, working on complex crowd management solutions. More recently, he has been involved in reviews such as those for the Casey Review into disorder at Wembley during the 2020 Euros.
The UK Crowd Management Association (UKCMA) has been sounding the alarm since late summer 2020.
“The whole world was involved in an unplanned psychological experiment with no preparation and no consequence management. Even the best planned psychological experiments can have unforeseen consequences but what we have all been through and what we have all faced has been extreme,” says Stuart.
“Through our international contacts in the Global Crowd Management Alliance (GCMA), we know that this is not exclusively a UK problem – it is far wider. From our discussions with colleagues all over the world, it is clear to see we are all facing the same challenges.”
The cause is less clear and Stuart and the UKCMA do not claim to be crowd psychologists.
He adds: “Academics are used to having many years to study a given phenomenon before arriving at a useful conclusion but the repercussions of the pandemic and the lockdowns are still reverberating.
“On the one hand, we are two years out of practice in the event industry. On the other hand, the public are also out of practice…there’s a whole group of people who have never been to an event; young people who have missed out on the normal process of growing up which includes socialisation, education and career path development.”
Stuart says: “The end of the 2021/22 soccer season involved scenes I have not witnessed for decades. Pitch invasions, flares and smoke, assaults on players and team staff; all these have been well-documented.
“The event season has also had issues with stage invasions by individuals or smaller groups, fence climbing, violence between guests, as well as assaults on staff.
“Drug and alcohol use has been higher and peoples’ lack of experience at events has left them less able to manage themselves and their own behaviour. These are all challenges we have faced before at events, but it has been a tough summer and we will not really understand it until we have all caught a breath and debriefed.”
How the industry responds is also unclear when staff shortages, a lack of experience and recruitment issues remain recurring themes.
“At the moment, we are limited to what we can do. That said, the industry response has been more cohesive on account of associations like UKCMA, where we foster relationships which make us stronger together,” Stuart says.
“If people cannot behave, there should be consequences. Police are rarely at events now and if they are called repeatedly because of criminal acts at a licensed event, then the whole event is in jeopardy of a licensing review, cancellation, or at least a demand to pay for police in future years.”
Whilst there must be an understanding about “societal causation” and Stuart argues for greater “near miss” reporting despite the obvious consequences.
He adds: “At the UKCMA, we are very proud that as an association we have many honest conversations between members and agencies.
“We can speak on behalf of members without fear of reprisal in terms of commercial loss. We have the ability, if not always the capacity, to depersonalise the learning and share it in a way that does not identify either the client or the source.”
Split second decisions
Stuart says lengthy club bans should act as a deterrent but there must also be a fuller understanding that a pitch or stage invader’s intent cannot be known in that split second.
If they understand the consequences, they might think twice.
He adds: “If we overreact to an innocent teenager trying to get a player’s shirt, we face ridicule, criticism and potentially criminal charges if we hurt someone. You only have a microsecond to react, so we will not get it right every time.
“Courts also need to understand that those people running on the pitch ‘just for fun’ are potentially masking those with ill intent.
“We need the judiciary to understand that nobody wants to be a killjoy but we must ensure everyone’s safety and that is a tricky balance.”
Stuart argues that if technology is to be employed, it should be highly intuitive but also be simple to use and that highly visual systems are easier to recognise.
The harnessing of CCTV properties as well as biometrics can aid in all aspects of crowd management, he says.
Stuart says: “CCTV is of course extremely useful and drones are becoming safer and more effective in the hands of experienced operatives who understand what we need to see. There remains a tricky balance between seeing the whole picture to ascertain crowd safety, surges, pulses and high-density areas, but also wanting to spot the individuals causing problems.
“That balance is now more achievable by camera systems that can give you both from the same camera at the same time. Systems are also available which state they can identify crowd issues through recognising facial expressions.
“As these develop, they will be a great help, though my view is that it still needs human beings to come up with the solutions and human beings will generally recognise there is a problem before AI.
“Feeling the mood of the crowd is as important as seeing them and to date, humans are better at interpreting those moods better than any computer.”
Is there any specialist training to help officers and operatives?
“We are very lucky in the UK and parts of Europe to have access to specialist training. As we know from GCMA, this is not the same everywhere. There are many training courses from introductions and principles of crowd safety management through to degree level and MSc courses.
“There are some fundamental principles to be understood about crowds but perhaps the most important is to understand the difference between crowd management and crowd control. The former involves good planning, a little maths, an understanding of physics and physiology (what happens if you squeeze people too tightly) and psychology, human traits and behaviours. The latter, crowd control is what you need to do if you got the first part wrong. Our job is to avoid that.”
And then there is the concept of “designing out” problems from venues is fundamental in crowd control.
Stuart says: “Site design can be very simple, say for a single stage small music or community festival, or it can be incredibly complex for example a multi-stage multi-day event with camping.
“The important part is the experience of those who have done the work before being listened to by those just starting out, especially in the planning phase. “People want to be innovative and that is great but there are basics that must be followed. Gravity functions the same everywhere, if you hang things above people’s heads, they must be guaranteed to not fall on people, as there is rarely a good outcome in that eventuality.”
For more information, visit: www.gentianevents.com
This article was originally published in the September 2022 edition of Security Journal UK. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.