When they came for the football supporters ….

Football fan accuses police of using excessive force” is a familiar press story, always worth a few column inches, and one that we’re all pretty much used to seeing.  And if it’s not football supporters then it’s likely to be protesters of one kind or another, or even just people in the wrong place when protests are going on.  But football supporters being injured and crying foul at police treatment of them is a recurring theme.  Football supporters do really seem to be a regular target of the police for some reason.

Every such story is sad, but what I find most shocking and disappointing is the reaction of so many football supporters to each of these stories.   There either seems to be a general acceptance of “well, that’s the way it is…” or, even worse, an assumption that “he deserved it” or “he must have been asking for it.

Indeed, when I discussed this with the guys I banter with on e-mail as a work-avoidance technique, I got some responses that really astounded me.  It seems the generally accepted attitude is that if you piss-off the police then you’re fair game for a beating.  For instance :   “It is a sickeningly lefty anti-establishment world where we go after honest coppers because some jumped-up, drunken idiot who doesn’t know how to behave is crying because his face hurts,” and “Quite simple – if you don’t want to get clubbed and have dogs set on you, then behave in an appropriate way. Going to football doesn’t give you an excuse to act like a complete prat.

Agreed, football doesn’t give you an excuse to act like a complete prat, but I can’t for the life of me understand why people seem to think that acting like a prat somehow makes it legitimate for the police to declare open season on you.  I’m sure we’ll all have been drunk and a bit lairy at one game or another, and if we’ve not we’ve then we’ll almost certainly been to matches with mates who’ve been drunk and a bit lairy.  Does this make us all legitimate targets?

I’m no legal expert, but as I understand it the use of force by the police should be reasonable, and should be appropriate to the level of threat posed to them and to other members of the public.  That’s a nice clear, understandable principle and I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s not a fair principle.  But more and more it seems to be generally accepted that if the person concerned is wearing a football shirt or has annoyed the police in some way – or even worse, both! – then this principle of use of force that’s appropriate to the level of threat can be conveniently ignored.

This principle surely should apply to everyone, shouldn’t it?  Even those who are breaking the law, who are drunk, who are noisy, who are boisterous, even those who are in the faces of the police?  The job of the police is to arrest people, so that the courts can judge their guilt and decide on a punishment if they’re found guilty.  But all too often the level of force used seems to be proportional to how much the person is breaking the law, or how much they’ve annoyed the police concerned.

It’s astounding that the police act like that, but it’s also massively disappointing that so many football supporters seem to accept this as the norm.  I always thought the police were meant to be the good guys, the ones we can all trust.  That means they should be the ones who play by the rules, even in the face of extreme provocation or violence, even when the person they’re arresting is “asking for it.”  They need to be able to show maturity and restraint, even when those they’re arresting are doing anything but that.

The police get given special powers to use force that would get anyone of us else arrested – the freedom to use force with things like batons, CS gas, tasers, dogs and so on.  But we’re so often told that with power comes responsibility, and in return for those powers the police have the responsibility to use them fairly and appropriately.

This general acceptance that exercising this responsibility doesn’t apply to football supporters, or to anyone breaking the law, is a dangerous, dangerous thing.  Because once you give the police the freedom to use whatever force they like when someone has pissed them off, you might as well not bother with the courts.  And once you’re into that mindset, who gets to decide where to draw the line on what is and isn’t an acceptable use of force?  It’s a slippery, slippery slope down to a place we all don’t want to be.

When asked, everyone says they’re in favour of civil rights – but in reality they seem to be only in favour of their own civil rights.  Because if you’re happy to assume when something happens to someone else that “he deserved it” or “he was probably asking for it” you must also be happy to assume that the police are always fair and always right.

Fair enough if you’re happy with that assumption.  But not only are there plenty of examples that prove that every single police officer isn’t 100% whiter-than-white 100% of the time, but you lose the right to complain if they ever treat you in a way which isn’t fair and right.  Because once it’s the norm that the police are above criticism when they go over the top, or that it’s somehow excusable because “they have a difficult job and there are a lot of nasty people out there” – then going over the top will become more and more the norm and less and less the exception.

So if you happily buy the “he must have been asking for it, the police would never do anything like that” line, don’t come crying to me or to any other fellow football supporters, if it ever happens to you.  Because, you know, he may not have been asking for it, and yes, they would.  And it could very easily happen to you, if you’re in the wrong place, close to the wrong people, or simply wearing a football shirt.