UK’s first football hate crime officer has said that there will be ‘consequences and comebacks’ for online abuse.
Stuart Ward of West Midlands police assumed the role in earlier this month, and has been busier than expected, reported The Guardian.
He now focuses aggressively on social media. Recently, the West Midlands police arrested a man suspected of racially abusing West Bromwich Albion footballer Romaine Sawyers online. It was Ward’s biggest case to date.
“If you’re walking down the street and you’re abused, it’s an offence. If it happens online, it’s still an offence. For many years, people have thought they can hide behind a laptop, they can type something and think there’s going to be no consequences, no comebacks – but there will be comebacks,” Ward told The Guardian.n
Ward, 34, is working alongside men’s and women’s clubs in the West Midlands, as well as with grassroots community football, to investigate incidents of hate crime relating to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or disability at matches and, increasingly, online.
According to him, social media companies must ask for formal identification, such as a passport or driving licence, from users, as it will make it easier for police forces to prosecute hate crimes, and would discourage people from posting abuse in the first place.
As a mixed-race child growing up in Dudley, Ward himself received racist abuse at the age of 11, after a tackle during a game.
“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,” he told The Guardian.
“That’s just one incident – I’ve had it all my life and it’s made me a stronger person. Education is really important at all levels, just to get people to understand what hate crime is and what impact it has on people, because it does have a massive impact and that’s where my personal experiences come into it, because that’s what I can relate to.”
Data shows one in 10 football fixtures in the 2019-20 season had an incident of hate crime in England and Wales, and the number of arrests for racist or indecent chanting more than doubled from 2018-19 to 2019-20 – from 14 to 35 – even though hundreds of matches were cancelled or played behind closed doors due to the pandemic.
Ward added that because of more awareness of these issues more offences are being reported now. Now, people are more confident in reporting them, he said.
He credits the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as footballers taking the knee before matches, for helping to raise awareness of the prevalence of racism and encouraging people to stand up to it.
Now, he hopes to work closely with players to pursue prosecutions against abusers in the coming months. Ward will also work with officials on match days to stamp out unacceptable behaviour in the crowds when fans are allowed to return.
“To me, football was all about the community. You would go to the ground, you would sit in the same seats and get to know the person next to you, and all the people around you – and that’s what we want to get back to,” he told the newspaper.
“What we don’t want is people avoiding football grounds because they feel they can’t go, the abuse is going to be too much, it’s going to be upsetting for them. When football is back, we want people to come to the grounds and have that community spirit again.”