SUSSEX Police have broken the silence over the controversial Albion v Crystal Palace match.

The force’s handling of last November’s fiery clash has been under the spotlight since then, with an official complaint against them lodged last month by Palace supporters.

It is claimed they were “kettled” during their time in Brighton on that night.

But Superintendent Howard Hodges and PC Darren Balkham, the police’s football liaison officer, say the force is a “learning organisation” – and insist the trust between officers and fans has not been affected.

Speaking exclusively to The Argus, matchday commander Supt Hodges and PC Balkham, the first officers to be put forward to face the press over football-related policing matters since that match, believe they will learn from the events of November 28, 2017 – the first meeting between the Seagulls and their bitter rivals for more than four years.

Supt Hodges said: “In relation to that fixture, there is a retrospective investigation complaint matter. The details of that fixture are something we wouldn’t be able to talk about, it would be unfair of us to do so.

“What I would say is we are a learning organisation as policing, and, actually, after each and every game, certainly at the end of the season, we will of course be reflecting, and learning, and do that on a fixture-by-fixture basis. I think it’s important that we reflect and we learn where that’s relevant.

“That’s where the UK Football Policing Unit come in and making sure there are policing operations that happen across the country virtually every week, and it’s about making sure UK policing adapts, UK policing works together, and makes sure it’s not just local lessons learnt, it’s actually about looking nationally to see where is best practice.”

The fixture was certainly an anomaly in a season of 21 arrests in total. There were six arrests at the match – making up almost a third of the entire year’s figures.

The 21 people arrested is an increase of three on last year.

Palace fans issued a 23-point letter claiming officers treated them unfairly, calling for disciplinary action against Superintendent Simon Nelson over a false statement he made. He claimed Eagles fans had knives and knuckledusters, but the police later issued an apology.

It was referred to the Independent Office for Police Complaints (IOPC), but has gone back to the force as complaints must be submitted by an individual rather than organisation.

The Crystal Palace Supporters’ Trust (CPST) also claims the relationship between football fans and police has been dented.

However, PC Balkham disagreed.

He said: “I’ve not seen that. There are some people who have got some questions, and it’s going through the due process at the moment.

“But we’ve had many fixtures since November 28, and I’ve not seen it from the fans that have spoken to me and some fans I’ve never spoken to before. They’ve had questions, and I’ve answered them the best I could. So, again, making sure you’re accessible to fans is a key point.

“I’m not going to sit here and say, after nearly 700 games I’ve done, I know everything. I don’t. If you start knowing that, you need to move on.

“You have to evolve and learn how society evolves and learns. That’s really, really important.”

An IOPC statement said: “Although the allegations are serious in nature, under the Police Reform Act a complaint can only be made by a person who has been subjected, witness to, or adversely affected by the conduct. The supporters’ trust is not a member of the public and it cannot be classified as a complainant.

“The complaint has been returned to Sussex Police.”

A Sussex Police spokesman said: “We have contacted the CPST solicitors asking them to confirm the issues they raise deal with the complaint in full and if so to provide details of specific named individuals who were subject of, or witnessed, each of the relevant allegations.

“Once this information has been provided we will be able to assess what action to take, including whether to re-refer this matter to the IOPC.

“Sussex Police do want to deal with the issues raised and to ensure we are able to learn any lessons that may result. As previously stated, we have already apologised to both clubs and the supporters about some information published last year that was not correct.”

See for comment.

Force shares successful season with Seagulls

IT HAS been a fantastic season for Albion, securing Premier League safety after a 34-year absence from the top flight.

The men behind the magic, owner Tony Bloom and manager Chris Hughton, and the players will be basking in the glory of a successful campaign on the pitch.

Off the Amex turf, Sussex Police staff can also give themselves a pat on the back.

Figures given to The Argus by the force show an increase of just three arrests in connection with Albion matches in the Seagulls’ debut Premier League season compared to last year.

Twenty one arrests from 22 home matches is “not much” when you take into account the sell-out crowds at the Amex, which tallies up to about 650,000 people, according to PC Darren Balkham, Sussex Police’s football liaison officer.

More away fans have been handcuffed this year, with the 13 supporters outweighing eight arrested Seagulls supporters. Eleven of them were made at the Amex.

Speaking to The Argus at Sussex Police’s Lewes HQ, PC Balkham and matchday commander Superintendent Howard Hodges said it has been a “good season” in terms of keeping crowd trouble down, bar the incidents against Crystal Palace in November 2017.

PC Balkham said: “If you look at the numbers, that’s 22 games at the Amex, and near enough every game has been a sell-out. That’s about 650,000 people.

“So you can break down the figures in regards to how many arrests, it’s not much.

“Last year it was 18 arrests in total. There’s an increase of three so far, a decrease of eight games, because obviously the Championship play more games.

“There’s no trend. You could look at it one way: there’s a lot more South East games this year – a number of London games, Bournemouth and Southampton.

“We’ve had higher away fans every game bar Huddersfield.”

The standout statistics at the Amex in recent years comes in the 2012/13 season, with 33 arrests made – public order offences accounting for 16 of them.

As PC Balkham said, there is no trend. In 2013/14, a mere six arrests were made, with two being Albion fans.

The following year it hiked to 19, though the most common offence was drug-related (nine arrests). Four were detained over public order crimes.

However, there is also no clear reason to what triggers disorder at football matches.

“It gets highlighted at football, but it’s almost a social issue,” said PC Balkham.

“There’s a mixture of things which spark this off. If we knew what the remedy was, we wouldn’t be sitting here.

“My ethos in regards to policing football is we’re there as part of a whole event, so the club make the Amex very friendly and welcoming to all. Some say too welcoming to the away fans – I’ve heard that said from home fans.

“They say ‘we don’t get treated like that, why should we treat away fans like it’.

“Behaviour breeds behaviour. That’s the way we look at it. There will always be elements, rivalries, people who perhaps just take it over the edge of rivalry.

“One thing I always say to the new officers when we do talks with them is: make sure you can separate passion from aggression.

“If you look at a football game and some fan vents their spleen over a referee or football player doing something, they are angry, but it’s part of the game.

“If you’ve got the same person not watching the game and looking at the away fans and doing the same thing, those are the people that need to be spoken to and just reminded of their behaviour.

“The Palace thing is a bit of an anomaly, but each club has one of those. United have City, Burnley have Blackburn. Each club can have a rival, and that’s all part of football.”

While many Albion stars get the chance of a well-deserved break before pre-season, the show goes on for Supt Hodges and PC Balkham.

They begin planning their operations when the Premier League fixtures list comes out next month, but things can change depending on events at matches throughout the season.

Supt Hodges may decide more officers need to be at one game and a smaller number the following week depending on the risk levels.

They are not alone in keeping people safe on matchdays – Sussex Police work closely with clubs and partners such as stewards and first aid teams.

Sometimes, PC Balkham said, the force has had a team of four patrolling the 30,750-seater Amex.

Similarly to what happens on the pitch, policing games is unpredictable.

Supt Hodges said: “I don’t think any two fixtures are really the same. I think it’s the weight of responsibility, because the 650,000 is across the season.

“If you’ve got a stadium, whether that’s Crawley, Woking or Brighton, you’ve got a lot of people who are there collectively to relatively confined space. Enthusiastic supporters, large crowds.

“It’s about making sure we can get those people in safely, they’re looked after while they’re there and they leave safely, and reflect on a good day at football.

“That’s probably the greatest challenge, and that’s a shared responsibility that we all have. We work together to make sure that can happen.”

PC Balkham, who has been in the role for the past 19 years, has policed almost 700 football matches in his time.

He has built a rapport with Albion fans, and uses Twitter as a tool to communicate with them. A Manchester United follower, he was subjected to banter from supporters last week – but all in jest.

He said: “I look at it as though I’m the old-fashioned beat bobby for Brighton.

"The engagement I do on Twitter is another way for people to engage with us. We don’t always get it right, and if we don’t, I’ll be first to say it. Fan engagement has got to be the key for all football.”

Supt Hodges added: “I think it has been a successful season, very much so. Broadly speaking, very little has changed. Over the years at the Amex, we have, together through the partnership, developed tried and tested plans.”