British police in Qatar will not act as morality police, says chief constable

British police officers heading to the World Cup will not act as “morality police” as they seek to prevent issues for England and Wales football fans in Qatar.

Chief constable Mark Roberts said the UK delegation will include a team of 15 supporter engagement officers who will act as a “buffer” between supporters from the two nations and Qatari law enforcement.

The experienced officers will be on hand to talk with fans and deescalate situations if they believe “there’s a risk they may be overstepping the mark”, and also speak with security on the ground to calm any tensions.

But Mr Roberts insisted they would only be focusing on fans who are “starting to draw a bit of attention” and risk causing offence with the behaviour without realising, and not on telling individuals whether or not they have had one pint too many.

Around 3,000 to 4,000 England fans are expected to travel to Qatar for the group stages, with numbers set to increase if the Three Lions reach the knockout stages.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 Wales fans are also expected to fly out, while both sides could see their numbers in the stands bolstered by expats in the region.

Statistics provided by the police showed there were three arrests among more than 5,000 England fans who travelled to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, 15 arrests four years earlier in Brazil where more than 9,000 fans travelled, and seven arrests among the more than 14,000 fans at South Africa in 2010.

Russia World Cup 2018
Mark Roberts, Football Policing Lead for the UK, said the priority is supporters’ safety (Aaron Chown/PA)

Mr Roberts said it is hoped that, similar to those tournaments, trouble is kept to a minimum.

But he told reporters: “It’s a World Cup in a different part of the world with a very different culture, and I think one of my fears is that supporters not wishing to cause offence or cause problems may act in a way that inadvertently causes offence or draws attention.

“Equally there may be perceptions on the part of the Qatari police or the supporting Turkish police, or any of the other agencies, about what supporters are doing.

“Just because people are noisy, bouncing up and down and chanting in a different language does not mean they’re being aggressive.”

Public order officers have been drafted in from a number of countries to support the Qatari police operation, with a “large contingent” from Turkish forces and some of the private security being provided by Pakistani police.

UK officials described Qatar’s preparations as “impressive” but said it is still unknown how well the different police forces will interact with each other, and how they will deal with the fans.

A “significant” number of UK police officers will be on the ground acting as spotters to both gather information to feed back to the Qatari commanders and act as community officers to support fans.

Wales v Belgium – UEFA Nations League – Group 4 – Cardiff City Stadium
Supporters of both sides are being urged to prepare themselves ahead of flying out to Qatar by familiarising themselves with the country’s laws and customs David Davies/PA)

Mr Roberts said they include a mix of English and Welsh officers, some of which will be Welsh speakers.

He added: “Their whole purpose is to be that buffer between our supporters and the local law enforcement.”

Asked if the officers could be perceived as a “morality police”, Mr Roberts replied: “No is the simple answer.”

“It’s not for us to judge whether what they are doing is right, wrong or indifferent, we just want to look after the supporters and the last thing we want to do is for someone who doesn’t realise they’re causing offence to find themselves in a situation where they’re then engaging with one of the foreign police forces.

“So we’re not there to be morality police, we’re there to say to people: look, you’re starting to draw a bit of attention, calm it down, we don’t want you to come into contact with any other policing styles.”

Chief Superintendent Steve Graham, head of the English police delegation, encouraged England fans to “live up to your actual behaviours” rather than seeking to “live down” to their perceived reputation.

Superintendent Stephen Rees, leading the Welsh police in Qatar, said the Red Wall should live up to the “positive reputation” they had built up around the world.

Mr Roberts added: “You can see from the stats of previous World Cups, when people have to go to that effort and expense to get there, generally fans are going to go, watch the games and enjoy them.”

Mr Roberts said the option for fans to buy beer and spend the day in a public square will not be possible in Qatar, adding those drinking will be in “relatively controlled” environments in either a hotel bar or a fan zone.

Fans will not be allowed to remove their tops in celebration, he warned, adding that police out there will need to be “flexible” with fans wishing to display national flags in public.

Tony Conniford, head of security at the Football Association, was asked about the readiness of Qatar to deal with the influx of fans, and said: “I’d like to think that they are ready, but I think you will only find out once we get there.”