Saturday played host to arguably the biggest game of the nascent Premier League season as heavyweights Spurs and Man City shared the spoils in an entertaining game. Predictably, the action was notable for a late Video Assistant Referee (VAR) decision that saw City’s winner chalked-off for handball. Indeed, VAR has been welcomed this season with mixed reviews. But there’s no doubt that the technology is here to stay and that its use will improve. VAR will allow the men policing matches to ensure justice is done while simultaneously prompting us to look at other areas of society such as the relationship between those that protect us – and the level of scrutiny they endure – and how new technology can help support them in ensuring the right outcome for all.
Let’s not forget, there’s a reason why referees are described as policing a match because the closest comparison is your actual Boys and Girls in Blue. Ensuring the right decisions are made demands a certain kind of mentality, one that is calm under, sometimes extreme, pressure, that is resilient, and that is unshakeable in its judgement. Oh, and a sense of humour helps too. All professional footballers agree that the best refs referee with a smile on their face. It would be barely believable if a police officer never said out loud: “You need a sense of humour to work here.”
Respect, they say, has to be earned. It takes some human being – in the heat of the action – to withstand the pressure of a 60,000-strong crowd baying for a decision a ref knows is not the right outcome. VAR’s technology, and the healthy scrutiny it brings, will prove, if ever needed, why the men in black have our respect.
That comparison between referee and policeman becomes even more finite, when you consider that police officers’ Body Worn Video (BWV) allows scrutiny of their actions too.
Of course, VAR has been deployed in other competitions for several years and goal line technology longer – the latter preventing what became described as ‘Ghost Goals’, one of the most memorable being Luis Garcia’s for Liverpool against Chelsea in the 2005 Champions League Semi-Finals. Geoff Hurst laments the fact that, in the 1966 World Cup Final, there was no goal line technology that would have proved his second goal bounced down from the crossbar and over the line as that would have put a stop to years of moaning by the Germans.
Would Graham Poll have given three yellows to Croatia’s Joseph Simunic in World Cup 2006 if one of his assistants had intervened much earlier down an earpiece?
If, at the time, the earpiece was the biggest groundbreaking piece of technology used by the ref then, for the police service, it was the deployment of the radio. That start of a relationship between policeman and machine would eventually reach the perfect match with the BWV and TASER devices, and change how an officer did his or her job and, just as crucially, how they felt about doing that job.
Nick Davies spent 30 years in the force, beginning as a bobby on the beat in Cardiff (South Wales): “Towards the end of my police career in 2014 BWV came in. I could see the writing on the wall. Our working lives would alter dramatically. We were now able to show a judge, a jury, the local community what words in a statement could never say. It’s given officers more confidence and authority while they are at the coal face. When an offender sees the footage he has nowhere to go. In the old days he would argue about what I said, he said, what happened, what didn’t happen. Video evidence is irrefutable.”
That irrefutable evidence led in 2016 to a 93% reduction from the previous year in complaints against the police, according to a University of Cambridge study. Dr Barak Ariel, of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, said: “I cannot think of any [other] single intervention in the history of policing that dramatically changed the way that officers behave, the way that suspects behave and the way they interact with each other. The cameras create an equilibrium between the account of the officer and the account of the suspect about the same event – increasing accountability on both sides.”
Similarly West Midlands Police report that complaints have fallen by 93 percent since it deployed BWV. And more importantly the cameras are helping to deliver against a key goal with officers nearly 300 percent less likely to be injured when they wear one. This delivers a knock-on effect in reduced costs as the force does not need to pay for medical assistance or send officers to hospital to accompany injured colleagues. The cameras are also helping to reduce paperwork with footage uploaded to a new system, Axon Evidence, that enables digital files to be shared directly with the Crown Prosecution Service. The reduction in paperwork tallies with the findings of the first national pilot of BWV that concluded that time spent on paperwork had been reduced by 22.4%, which led to a 9.2% increase in officer time spent on patrol (“50 minutes of a 9-hour shift”).
Like the introduction of police radios, the use of VAR will come to be seen by communities as a staging post in the relationship between technology and, above all, its ability to secure justice.
See things from officers’ perspectives
Police officers face demanding and highly pressurised situations every shift. To see how technology is helping them protect themselves, colleagues, the public – and suspects – by safely de-escalating incidents, check out this point-of-view video