The Big Interview: Gary Parkin, Head of Security and Safeguarding at Derby County Football Club: Terrorism is evolving so security at clubs must constantly evolve as well.
Thousands of people packed into a football stadium on matchday might seem like an open goal to any would-be terrorist, but Gary Parkin, a former police senior superintendent, says there is always work being done around the clock to ensure supporters and staff are safe and secure.
Since the days of the Hillsborough disaster and the sight of hooligans running riot through city centres, society and culture has changed significantly, but with this has come another challenge, an increased threat of terrorism and at the same time a shifting modus operandi of the terrorist.
What that means is that football clubs along with all other ‘crowded places’ must constantly be on their guard and adapt to threat.
Derby County, a well-supported club in the second tier of English football, the Championship, has a 33,000-capacity all-seater stadium and an 80-acre training grounds on the outskirts of Derby, a city in the East Midlands.
Crowds are regularly above 28,000, and Gary’s responsibility with the club’s Safety officer and other partners is to ensure the security of the ground and its immediate surrounding. Part of that involves constantly evaluating the potential threat.
“So much of our work goes unnoticed, because so much of it is intelligence-led. We work closely with partners – the police, the EFL (English Football League), the Council – to assess any threat.
“We have hundreds of stewards and staff who are trained to spot certain things with the Home Office mantra “see it, say it, sort it”. We work very closely around what the intelligence is, what we can do, the physical control measures such as vehicle mitigation ramps, road closures around the stadium, and various mitigation measures to stop vehicle-borne explosives getting near.
“But mostly it’s about eyes and ears; and that’s not just the staff. We have 30,000 eyes and ears on matchday, so if it looks wrong it probably is wrong, as we’ve put measures in place so there is a system of communication, so spectators can report issues and concerns, very quickly, to enable assessment and investigation and hopefully reduce any threats.
One conversation about football stadiums that often comes up is how easy it might be to get in with a concealed weapon. The answer, says Gary, is harder than you’d think.
For a start, intelligence-led operations often mean potential troublemakers never get as far as the ground, he said. And security is adapted depending on which team is visiting and the threat of risk based on previous incidents.
“For example, if there is a group of supporters who are known to use flares, it is likely every supporter will be searched. They will have a dog there. And it might be there are specific people we are targeting.
“The searching regime is more pro-active and visible regime also acts as a deterrent. The journey of terrorism is about engagement, intent and capability. By having a search regime, people intent on causing trouble are deterred while others feel safer.
“You will always get people saying “I could get in here if I wanted to. Well yes, you could, but you’ve got to be motivated to be able do it, because you would look different, you would sound different, you would behave differently, and staff are trained to spot that; that’s what people don’t realise.”
Gary is perfectly placed to lead on Security. A distinguished career at Derbyshire police saw him awarded the Queen’s Police Medal in 2015. After leaving the police he worked for the Home Office as a Contact Officer on the government’s Counter Terrorism radicalisation programme.
Gary said that clubs must be constantly aware of the changing methods terrorists are using by working closely with Counter Terrorism Security Advisors.
“There was a call to arms by ISIS around three years ago that basically made the point that you don’t need to come Syria or Iraq to train, you don’t need to have a gun and indeed you don’t need a conventional weapon. At home you have a car, you can probably hire a lorry, and you all have knives.
“So, at that point you had a different moderos operandi for the terrorist, vehicles driven into crowds at various places, and random stabbings in’ crowded places’ That lone actor (terrorist) is very difficult to track or intervene with because their life journey often doesn’t involve criminality – they aren’t afraid to be identified because their goal is often to die a martyr.
“At Derby County, as so called’ crowded place’ we would get information from our law enforcement partners about the latest attack motives are and they share that with us and we discuss how we can mitigate. That mitigation might just be knowledge rather than action.
“But there has never been a terrorist atrocity without planning and our staff are trained to spot and challenge someone asking strange questions, taking pictures or behaving out of the normal. Behaviour known as ‘hostile reconnaissance’.
“Quite often we have built up intelligence and information provided by police partners in counter-terrorism, who we work very closely with.
He said clubs have benefited from improvements in technology. At Derby County, new, remarkably sharp CCTV, PA and lighting has recently been installed. On matchday, in a large executive-style box at the back of a stand gather club safety and security staff and representatives from all three emergency services.
“If anyone comes to the ground in the hours before kick off it looks like a military operation, with stewards being briefed and everyone getting ready.
The planning has been carried out prior to the match and all the staff are ready to be vigilant and engage with our supporters.
The safe movement of people in, around and out of the stadium is paramount, says Gary. “You never say never,” he said. “But we do everything we possibly to ensure supporters and staff are safe and secure.”