The Hillsborough Panel Report and a very bad day for the Police

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Yesterday, some of our police officers had a very bad day indeed. There were two reports in the press. The first was about a police officer who had intentionally scuppered a series of sex crimes by lying about what he had done and failing to pursue the cases through to prosecution. In some ways, this is to be expected. Police officers are human beings, just like the rest of us, and there will always be the odd bad apple somewhere.  Officers will take it on the chin and recognise that this is a part of policing, whether they like it or not, but that case isn’t what caused so many on Twitter to fall into painful silence. What did that was the publication of the report from the Hillsborough Panel.

As the findings came to light, led by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, details emerged into the public domain. The Report from the Hillsborough Independent Panel is shocking. The tragedy itself and the difficulties the police and other emergency services had in coping with a situation that took 96 lives would have been bad enough. What really did the damage to the officers on Twitter was the information that followed:-

  • That police carried out criminal record checks on the deceased in an attempt to “impugn their reputations”
  • That senior officers privately discussed the “animalistic behaviour” of “drunken marauding fans”
  • Evidence that a number of the dead survived “for a significant period” beyond the 3.15pm cut-off point imposed at the original inquest
  • 116 of the 164 South Yorkshire Police statements were doctored to remove unfavourable comments
  • South Yorkshire Ambulance Service was misleading when it claimed criticism of its conduct made by doctors who were present was factually inaccurate
  • There was “no evidence of substance” to support the police account that alcohol and fan aggression played a part in the disaster
  • Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed concern in Cabinet that the first inquiry into the disaster contained “devastating criticism of the police”
  • The weight placed on blood alcohol levels among the dead was “inappropriate” (Source: Daily Telegraph)

It took twenty-three years to finally get at this information; a journey which included:-

  • a Home Office inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Taylor
  • a criminal investigation
  • inquests
  • civil actions
  • a judicial review of the inquests
  • a judicial scrutiny of ‘new evidence’ by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith
  • a private prosecution of two senior police officers
  • a submission to the European Court of Human Rights

From what I saw of their reactions on Twitter, the best of the police were as horrified as everyone else and probably more so. What occurred betrays the Oath they take when they become officers. Those wanting to do a good job pay attention to this because it guides them in their work. What occurred during and after the Hillsborough tragedy violated the Oath to its very core. As the documents reveal, we discover that officers, already traumatized by the event itself, were ‘helped’ by senior officers into altering, deleting or qualifying their originally truthful statements thereby becoming unwilling participants in an intentional collusion to blame the victims instead. This tells me that senior officers coerced constables to violate their Oath in an astonishing abuse of power.

Our view of the police is frequently coloured by our experiences with those we do encounter. Listen to prisoners and they’ll tell hair-raising stories of how bad they are. Listen to others and the police can’t put a foot wrong. Both views are inaccurate because they are unbalanced in their reporting. Having met quite a few police constables during my adventures with the law, I’ve found that there are those who are excellent; many who are good-enough; and those who are downright dangerous. Each police officer is different because we are all individual but, if I was polite and respectful – even when they were arresting me – the best and the good-enough did no harm. They were doing their job and following orders. I’ve never seen any reason to make the process more difficult than it needs to be and, in return, they responded in various ways, from simply being fair to offering considerable kindness when I was at my most distressed.

The possibility that these officers could be subject to coercion by senior staff comes as no surprise to me at all, because I’ve seen it before. The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s documents haven’t yet revealed who issued the orders because they haven’t been thoroughly examined yet. We may never know but these remain extremely important questions. Who ordered police constables to alter their statements and ‘helped’ them when they objected? Who ordered the background checks of the victims, actively looking for evidence to impugn their reputation? Who was involved in fabricating tales of drunkenness and ‘animalistic’ behavior? This could only have come from the senior and very senior officers of South Yorkshire Police. Who were these people and what kind of orders are they issuing now?

Certainly one, Norman Bettison – a Chief Inspector with SYP at the time of Hillsborough – is now the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police. The Guardian Live Blog comments: “Bettison was part of the internal review team at South Yorkshire police who have been accused of engaging in black propaganda to shift blame for the stadium disaster from the police and onto fans,” although the man himself has consistently denied it, particularly when he became Chief Constable of Merseyside – a surprisingly tactless appointment in the light of subsequent events. But what happened to the rest of them? Are they still working for the police? Where? What are they responsible for now?

If I were a police officer facing this kind of reporting about my service, I would be both appalled and worried. The service is already under strain as government budget cuts begin to bite into direct services. At the same time, they face the threat of privatisation. Knowing our present government, the shock of the Hillsborough Panel’s report could well be used as a political excuse to speed up this process under the guise of efficiency. Yet I do wonder if Hillsborough families would have ever had access to the truth of what went on had the event been covered by privatised police. Somehow, I doubt it.

Morale within the police, as with many other public services, is very low. Their pay and pensions are under threat; the services they provide have been whittled down to danger levels; the social problems we expect them to deal with are likely to increase; they are facing privatisation; and now this. The situation has deteriorated so badly the police are considering industrial action – something else they are forbidden to do! It’s as if the country has ceased to be grateful to those who do walk towards trouble while the rest of us walk away.

When I began this piece, I was aiming to be supportive for the best of our police officers. What I didn’t realise is just how hard it is to do that these days. The collective force of negativity is so powerful it can seem, at times, impossible to combat. It only changes when I recognise the levels of social responsibility attached to the job.

Our politicians use terms like ‘social responsibility’ in their rhetoric but, from my perspective, few have any real notion of what it means. To be socially responsible means to put aside personal or ego needs in favour of the needs of the community. It requires such people to be unselfish with their knowledge, skills, abilities, and, in the case of the police and other emergency services, their lives too. The very best of the police, prison officers, fire services and medics put themselves at risk to keep us safe each and every day. We might not see this with our own eyes but we expect them to be there when we need them. To do that, they have to give up aspects of life we take for granted so we, us non-emergency people, can keep ours. We expect them to be better than we are; to have better behaviour; to have a better social attitude than the ones we hug to ourselves; and we give them hell if they fail. There was a time, as a society, where we valued the personal sacrifices they made on our behalf. We didn’t begrudge them a decent wage and we recognised that the pension they got at the end of their working life was a fair reward for the services they’d provided to us.

Times have changed and not for the better. When it comes to the police, we already have lost a significant number through government budget cuts. These come at a time when the indicators for social unrest suggest we can expect more of this as poverty, homelessness and hunger start to cut into the bones of our society. When our communities explode, as it appears they might, who are we going to call on? Privatised police? Exactly how likely are they to be working “without favour or affection, malice or goodwill”? Personally speaking, if the efficiency of G4S during the London Olympics is anything to go by, we can kiss our collective ass’s goodbye.

If any good is going to come out of the Hillsborough Panel’s report, perhaps we can be grateful for the information of what can go on ‘behind-the-scenes’ in some police forces. The ‘help’ those Hillsborough police received to change their statements violated the heart of both the employment and social contract of policing as that stands at present. Perhaps it’s time to start questioning some of the orders being issued for their lawfulness. Perhaps it’s also time to really start appreciating those police officers who know just how important their Oath is, especially to the public. And perhaps it’s time to really start respecting the best of our police officers whilst dealing with the worst.

If I had written a purely supportive piece on this subject, it wouldn’t have been true and any police officer reading it would know that. Untruths are no good to anyone, especially when facing the kind of problems I’ve already outlined. So this piece has evolved into something as realistic as I can get it from an outsider’s perspective. The police have to deal with this reality every working day and I think it’s disrespectful not to acknowledge that.  They live this reality whilst I only write about it from a home made safe by their presence whenever it’s needed. They’re a tough and often cynical bunch because that can be the only way to survive when you do the job. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need to hear they are valued.

Yes; there are clearly some very serious problems within the police service and some of those are bad police officers at senior levels. Yes, there are equally serious problems developing within the community. Yes, everyone will be looking to you to sort these problems out and, yes, some of us know that it’s being made very hard for you to do that. It’s a horrible position to find yourselves in and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, especially our emergency services. But please also bear in mind that there are some of us who see what you do, know what you’re struggling with and are astonished at your commitment to keep going. Some of us are deeply grateful, not only for what you do but for your commitment and integrity, even in the face of stories like Hillsborough. I’m one of them.

Thank you.

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