Since starting his role as the UK’s first football hate crime officer earlier this month, PC Stuart Ward has been busier than expected, considering football fans are banned from stadiums as part of the coronavirus lockdown.
Instead of jibes from the stands, players are now fielding more abuse on social media – just the other week, in Ward’s biggest case to date, West Midlands police arrested a man suspected of racially abusing West Bromwich Albion footballer Romaine Sawyers online.
In his first-of-its-kind role, 34-year-old Ward 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.
“It’s unacceptable. If you’re walking down the street and you’re abused, it’s an offence. If it happens online, it’s still an offence,” said Ward. “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.”
He is joining calls for social media companies to require formal identification, such as a passport or driving licence, from users, a move that will make it easier for police forces to prosecute hate crimes he says, as well as discouraging people from posting abuse in the first place.
Earlier this month, the Premier League’s chief executive, Richard Masters, called for social media companies to ensure “improved identification and banning of offenders” after a swathe of racist abuse directed at players including the Manchester United players Axel Tuanzebe and Anthony Martial, while their teammate Marcus Rashford said he was subjected to “humanity and social media at its worst” after receiving racist abuse.
Ward himself knows what it’s like to experience abuse on the pitch. As a mixed-race child growing up in Dudley, he 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.
“That’s just one incident – I’ve had it all my life and it’s made me a stronger person,” he said.
He hopes his lived experiences of racism will help him to better empathise with the victims he’ll be working with. “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.
But the picture is not as bleak as it seems, according to Ward. “I think we’re seeing more offences being reported now. I don’t necessarily think that’s because the problem is getting worse, I think it’s because more people are aware of these issues, these offences, and they’re more confident in reporting them.”
He credits the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as footballers taking the knee before matches, as helping to raise awareness of the prevalence of racism and encouraging people to stand up to it. “Obviously what we want to do now is start driving those numbers down, not by people not reporting it, just by dealing with it in a positive manner.”
Over the coming months he hopes to work closely with players to pursue prosecutions against abusers, and work with officials on match days to stamp out unacceptable behaviour in the crowds when fans are allowed to return.
Ward said he is “extremely proud” to be leading the way in tackling a problem that is so close to him, and hopes more than anything that when football returns to normal after lockdown, the country is reminded how the sport can be used to as a tool for bringing people together.
“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.
“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.”