BY CÓILÍN DUFFY AND GEORGE WILLOUGHBY
New ground has been broken by West Midlands Police with the appointment of the UK’s first dedicated hate crime officer to be based in a football unit.
PC Stuart Ward will be working with local football clubs in a bid to curb the increase in abuse against both footballers and fans – especially online.
Ward’s new powers will strengthen the ability of the unit and police force to investigate offences.
His duties include investigating complaints of hate crime linked to football and monitoring online interactions.
He will also work with clubs across the West Midlands at both professional and amateur levels to highlight what is an offence, and stressing the importance of reporting it.
Schools will also fall under his remit, where Ward will aim to educate youngsters about discrimination, linking up with bodies such as ‘Kick it Out’; while also continuing the forces on side youth and yellow card intervention and prevention programmes.
As a young footballer Stuart was the victim of racism, and he understands the emotional impact of abuse. This means he can draw on his personal experience when providing support to victims.
“I’m mixed race and growing up I was racially abused. I remember being 11-years-old and playing football for a junior side,” said Ward.
“It came from another player and the thing that stuck with me was how no-one did anything about it, other than my mum who stopped the game and took me off the pitch.
“There were parents, match officials, the other players – who were old enough to know right from wrong – who didn’t challenge the comments or support me.
“So having sadly been subjected to discrimination I know the feelings and the impact it can have on you.
“I feel I’m in a position where I can offer help and support, while looking to take action against those involved.”
Hate crime increase for third year-in-a-row
The 34-year old’s appointment comes as Government figures show that reported incidents of hate crime at football matches has increased for three consecutive years.
At the end of the 2019/20 season, they reached a record high of 287.
This is double compared to the figure reported three years ago.
A wide range of offences are covered under hate crime legislation, including abuse connected to race, sexual orientation, disability, religion or gender.
Change this culture
“We need to change this culture, we’re a multi-cultural society and it’s important we educate people around hate crime to stop it happening,” said Ward.
“Clearly, we’ll look to take enforcement action too and won’t hesitate to take people to court where appropriate.
“I’ve spent 12 years as a response officer – along with some time as a football spotter – and I’m proud to have been given the role as dedicated football hate crime officer.
“I enjoy the game and want everyone else, whatever their background, to feel comfortable in doing so too.”
One of the biggest increases was in sexual orientated hate crimes.
Racially motivated hate crimes are the most common
Figures show this particular hate crime had 78 reported incidents last season – almost three times more than after the conclusion of the 2017/18 season.
Racially motivated hate crimes remained the most common.
To combat the rising numbers, West Midlands Police recently announced they would be appointing the UK’s first football hate crime officer.
The announcement comes as a recent freedom of information request revealed Aston Villa supporters had the most reported cases of hate crime.
Villa had 13 occurrences of hate crime, closely followed by Wolves with 10. Out these incidents, 73% were racially motivated.
Chief executive of Show Racism the Red Card Ged Grebby has “welcomed” the hate crime officer initiative.
“We welcome the appointment and look forward to working with the officer,” said Grebby.
“Show Racism the Red Card are in our 25th Anniversary year and we have a very experienced education team who have worked on combating race hate crime.
“We are more than happy to share our knowledge on combating hate crime and discuss some of the projects we already have underway.
“Reported hate crime has doubled in the last five years so this appointment is timely and we look forward to working with the officer involved.”
Have you been subjected to hate crime as a player or supporter of a football team? Let us know! firstname.lastname@example.org