A Coroner’s inquest today found that West Yorkshire Police, and specifically Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield was “responsible for manslaughter by gross negligence” in the 1989 incident which left 96 dead and 766 injured. The injuries were sustained by Liverpool fans as they were crowded into stands at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium beyond its capacity, leading to people being crushed against the fences. The police, and some media, blamed Liverpool fans for the actions, and accused them of rowdy and drunk behavior which not only caused injuries, but which hampered efforts to assist those injured. To put it simply, the police caused a massive tragedy, blamed the victims, and lick-spittle pockets of the ‘press’ joined in to put the boot to a city that’s routinely derided for all manner of things.
The verdict is good, REALLY good, but it’s also REALLY late. Less than two weeks ago was the 27th anniversary and we’re only just getting a competent coroner’s verdict? Dr Stefan Popper, the coroner in the original inquest back in 1991 made the assumption that all the victims at that time had died by 15:15 on the day of the match, and ruled their deaths accidental. This verdict stood until the 2012 Hillsborough independent panel report, which quashed them and required new hearings.
To many reading this, it’s not much more than a long-winded case finally getting to the root of the problem, and how police officers can escape justice for years. Likewise, when we think of police actions and fear leading to death, we think of Tamir Rice (whose family just got a $6M ‘no fault’ settlement), or of Walter Scott, shot in the back a year ago, perhaps even the November 2014 death of Gurlnig by Liang in a New York stairwell. None of those are in the same league as this incident, where as the match commander, it was up to Duckenfield to deploy resources, and when he should have called for ambulances to deal with the dying and wounded, he instead called for police dogs to make the situation worse.
The match (an FA Cup semi-final) was broadcast live on TV, and as it unfolded it was obvious what was happening. To this day, the comments of my mother as she watched it unfold, wondering if any of our friends were there, still haunt me.
And while I myself was not at the stadium (I’m not a football fan) pretty much everyone from Liverpool knew someone that was. Americans might know city-sports rivalries like Mets/Yankies, Cubs/Whitesox, or Raiders/49ers, but they have nothing on the rivalry between Liverpool and Everton fans (which spans back to the 19th century, when Liverpool split off from Everton in 1892) you’re either a Red (Liverpool) or a Blue (Everton), with naught but Stanley Park separating the two grounds. In 124 years they’ve cooperated on nothing except out of necessity, with one exception – this. The entire city has stood together on this for the last 27 years, side by side, and the galvanizing effect? Statements by the police and newspapers (specifically The Sun) in the hours and days after blaming the victims – our friends and relatives.
When it comes to blame-the-victim, this event broke new lows. Police said that it happened because Liverpool fans were drunk and belligerent, when the reality was that police did not do their job of controlling access to stands. The central pens, which had an official capacity of 2,200, but a safe capacity of only 1700, had more than 3000 in there, with police directing ever more fans in. Disaster was inevitable, as was the cover-up, aided by elements of the media.
The Sun newspaper, famous for its page 3 girls, but probably better known more recently for taking over from its sister publication – the News of the World – after the phone hacking scandal killed that paper, led with an obnoxious front page not only casting blame on the victims, but accusing their fellow scousers of stealing from the injured, and urinating on the police or beating up those trying to give aid, and that’s just in the sub-headings. It also included photographs of fans (including young children) being crushed to death on the fences, and claims that some fans asked for a dead girl’s body to be thrown into the stands so it could be sexually abused. The editor responsible, Kelvin MacKenzie, cited police officers and a local conservative MP as their sources, but were unable to back any of the claims. It did however speak to his target audience, which he has been quoted describing as
“the bloke you see in the pub, a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs back, buy his poxy council house, he’s afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and the weirdos and drug dealers. He doesn’t want to hear about that stuff (serious news). “
…The same sort of demographic sought now by the American arm of the news organisation – Fox. In damage control, MacKenzie was ordered by his boss, Rupert Murdoch, to appear on BBC Radio4 to apologize, and he did. He then repeated his apology to a House of Commons Select Committee in 1993, putting the blame again on the police, including Duckenfield. Yet in November 2006 he went back on his apology, saying
All I did wrong there was tell the truth. There was a surge of Liverpool fans who had been drinking and that is what caused the disaster. The only thing different we did was put it under the headline “The Truth”. I went on The World at One the next day and apologised. I only did that because Rupert Murdoch told me to. I wasn’t sorry then and I’m not sorry now because we told the truth.
Except it was never the truth, outside of the heads of certain police officers and newspaper editors. The Sun, then the most popular newspaper in the UK, was ritually burned all over the Mersey region, and even today, it’s hard to find a newsagent that stocks it. When asked today for a statement about the verdict, they replied ‘no comment’, afraid to admit that they were wrong in their stoking of traditional stereotypes of criminality for the sake of ratings.
The Taylor Report, commissioned in 1990, interviewed dozens of police officers, and called senior officers ‘defensive and evasive’, with Lord Taylor stating
“In all some 65 police officers gave oral evidence at the Inquiry. Sadly I must report that for the most part the quality of their evidence was in inverse proportion to their rank.”
It also contained recommendations for massive changes to UK sporting stadiums, including the increased use of cameras, a ban on ‘stands’ (and thus make stadiums all-seater) and increased use of designated ticketing. Despite the huge impact on revenues, both from increased costs and decreased capacities, UK teams compiled without issue, to the point that if an attendee climbs across sections into one they’re not ticketed for, many clubs will now close that section and send officers to remove and ban the offenders from the stadium (example), all under the gaze of CCTV (my step-mother was in charge of this at another Premiership club – those cameras cover EVERYWHERE)
Yet the police cover ups continued. Sir Norman Bettison – a Superintendent in the Hillsborough disaster liaison unit shortly after the disaster (and who was at the event off duty) narrated a 30 minute film shown to MP’s that reiterated the drunk, violent and ticketless fans story, which caused massive outrage when he was made Merseyside (the county Liverpool is in) Chief Constable in 1998, a position he retired from in 2005. however, in 2007 he returned to his home turf, and rejoined West Yorkshire Police as their chief constable, where he wanted to not only take pay for his job, but continue receiving his pension from Merseyside police. When his involvement in the Hillsborough disaster was revealed in the September 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report, families demanded his resignation, which he countered with claims that the fans made it hard to police the event.
A month later, he announced he would retire in March 2013, but resigned a day later after Maria Eagle MP (Garston and Halewood, the south end of the city) used Parliamentary Privilege to tell of him boasting about a Hillsborough cover-up operation based on blaming the victims. Bettison denied this (and other claims), but a Freedom of Information request to the West Yorkshire Police Authority revealed that he resigned after finding out “he faced possible dismissal over a last minute discussion with a police authority executive in which he allegedly sought to influence talks about his role in the Hillsborough scandal.”, which could have been a sackable offense if it could be proven he interfered with the integrity of the complaints handling process.
But what about Duckenfield? In the summer of 2000 a private prosecution was taken out against him and another officer, over the orders to open the gates to the overcrowded stands, and herd hundreds more supporters on, in contrast to his statement to senior Football Association officials that the fans had forced the gates open and charged the area themselves. The trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict, and a request for a re-trial was denied. Internal police disciplinary charges were dropped when Duckenfield retired on health grounds, a classic tactic of police officers when faced with often weak and toothless internal complaints procedures, but which has been somewhat stymied in the last 18 months.
Which brings things to today’s inquests. They were brought after the release of the 2012 HIP report, at the request of the Attorney-General. The decision by the Lord Chief justice, Lord Judge was based on the attempts by the police to deflect blame onto the fans. Part of that deflection includes the altering of over 160 police statements, the vast majority of them to remove or alter comments which reflected badly on the policing at the event. These changes were not just down to West Yorkshire police either, as during the same debate as Eagle’s revelations about Bettison, Stephen Mosley MP alleged that West Midlands police officers pressured witnesses (police and civilians) to change their statements as the West Midlands police (which covers an area that includes the UK’s second largest city – Birmingham) investigated the conduct of their fellow officers a hundred miles to the north-east.
And while an Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation is underway (and has already found another 50+ statements by police officers to have been changed) there is the distinct possibility of criminal charges for many of those involved in the coverup and deception.
For those that think that police corruption and coverups are just for little things like dealing with speeding tickets or fixing an assault charge, remember this was the biggest sporting tragedy in the UK, ever, broadcast live on national television as-it-happened, and a massive cabal of officers at all levels, from the very highest on down, and across multiple police forces, all conspired to hide the truth, and to pin the blame on the victims. And now, 27 years later, we may start to have some semblance of justice. And yet some of the tools that have helped bring this about, like the Freedom of Information requests, may be watered down by the Government because they’re too useful in uncovering malfeasance in office.
Also, it is very clear that the efforts of the police towards truth and justice always skew (as you might expect) towards the police. On November 18 2005, West Yorkshire Police officer Sharon Beshenivsky was shot and killed, while PC Teresa Millburn was shot and injured. Suspects were named a week later and some arrested the following day. They were found guilty exactly one month after the incident, and sentenced to life with 35 years minimum. In November 2007 another person involved with the crime was extradited from Somalia after an undercover operation there. Swift, decisive justice with no avenue or expense spared, because it involved the death of a police officer. When the police cause the deaths of 96 though, there’s more than a quarter-century of cover-ups, corruption and CYA, certainly none of the same urgency and zeal for justice.
This, if nothing else, should underscore that to the police, protecting the police is their primary objective.
Video footage of the incident, this may be disturbing to some people.
RTE (Ireland) footage which starts at the kickoff
BBC footage that starts approximately 20 minutes after the match was stopped