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Conduct of the Police Before, During and After the Hillsborough Disaster

Info: 5171 words (21 pages) Essay
Published: 7th Jun 2021 in Criminology

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 During the longest inquest in British legal history, the image of a negligent police force, led by a commander whose actions directly contributed to the deaths of 96 people emerged.[1] This essay will discuss the conduct of the police both during and after the disaster and the subsequent inquests. As will be seen, the collusion between the police and the coroner fed the media frenzy that portrayed the victims as the instigators. This media frenzy, alongside the lies given by police, in turn, infected the criminal justice system (CJS), all the way up to the courts.

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The constant lies, denial, and non-compliance of the police during this ordeal seriously undermined public confidence in both the police and the CJS as a whole. Although the decline of public confidence in the police seen during the 1980s has since stabilised and begun to rise, residents within the South Yorkshire Police’s (SYP) area still have issues with confidence in the police and the CJS. It is those affected by the disaster who have predominantly lost trust in the police since Hillsborough.

The Criminal Justice Alliance defines the CJS as: ‘the collection of agencies including, but not limited to, the police, the courts...’.[2] The police and the courts will be the main focus of this essay as, it will be argued, they were key players in the undermining of public trust after Hillsborough. Other agency involvement will not be discussed at length due to wording constraints.

 The Hillsborough disaster occurred during a football match in 1989, oversaw by police chief superintendent David Duckenfield. Duckenfield failed to close a tunnel which, after taking thirty years for him to admit, was the ‘direct cause of the deaths of the 96 persons’.[3] The fact that Duckenfield initially lied and told Football Association (FA) executives that ‘fans had broken the gates down to gain unauthorised entry into the stadium’, shows the beginnings of an institutional cover-up.[4]

During the chaos of the disaster, coroner Dr. Popper attended the football stadium. Popper decided, alongside pathologists at the scene, to take blood alcohol levels of all victims. His rationale was that the levels of alcohol ‘may have led to the crush’,[5] Poppers’ decision was described by criminologist Phil Scraton as ‘unprecedented’.[6]

The day after the incident, the then Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police, Peter Wright, held a briefing with senior police managers. According to the Hillsborough Independent Panel, it was during this briefing that the position of seeking to blame ‘drunken, ticketless fans’ was formed.[7] 

It is clear that the police sought to blame ‘drunken fans’ for this incident. The victim’s families were heavily questioned about the deceased’s alcohol consumption and behaviour during police interviews.[8]  Additionally, statements made by the police officers involved were edited by legal advisors in order to ‘remove criticisms of senior officers but [did not] remove criticisms of the fans.’[9] One officer considered it an ‘injustice for statements to have been doctored to suit the management of SYP.’[10]

After the opening and immediate adjournment of coroner Stefan Poppers’ inquest, the initial report into the disaster was headed by Lord Justice Taylor in his Interim Report. Taylor ultimately concluded that the ‘main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.’[11] Yet, Taylor weakened his claim by going on to praise SYP, commending them for their ‘excellent service to the public’[12] giving the example of the ‘successful’ handling of crowds during the Orgreave coal strike.[13] Many would disagree. Human rights activist Gareth Peirce described the police response at Orgreave as a ‘deliberate attempt to maim and injure innocent persons’.[14] This approach of Taylor suggests that the courts were going to side with the police.

Taylor rejected the police’s accusation that drunkenness was an important factor, adding that the police, ‘in seeking to rationalise their loss of control, overestimated the drunken element in the crowd.’[15] He went on to criticise the police, highlighting their culture of denial and attempt to blame the victims.[16] However, that is as far as Taylor went, his generic Final Report addressed the ‘future of football’, ‘alcohol sales in grounds’ and ‘hooliganism’, focusing very little, if at all, on the actions of the police any further. [17] Additionally, evidence during these reports was not taken under oath, therefore, any evidence given was of little or no validity.[18]

This paved the way for Stefan Popper to conclude his coroners' inquest. In 1991 he returned his verdict of accidental death for the majority of the victims.[19] Although the police were criticised by Taylor, they appeared to get off relatively lightly. Popper rejected evidence from two independent medical doctors who witnessed the disaster and were critical of the police response.[20] The only medical doctor called to attend was William Purcell, who was the football clubs doctor.[21]

The actions of the police and up to this point was clearly undermining public confidence. The police’s stance was that the fans were responsible, statements were changed to portray the victims negatively and the police positively.  Although not proven, one of the victims' fathers alleges he saw Popper ‘celebrating’ with police officers and alcohol immediately after Popper's verdict of accidental death.[22] This is undoubtedly a conflict of interest that caused distrust towards the police. Considering this, alongside Poppers ‘unfathomable’ decision not to hear evidence from any other doctors at the scene,[23] it is argued that the police and Popper were working in collusion to cover up the truth. The courts were not bringing much to the table either. The Taylor Report was toothless, although blame was apportioned, it went no further and evidence given was of little or no validity.

 By this time, the names of the victims had already been slandered by the media. Newspapers such as ‘The Sun’ and their infamous ‘The Truth’ headline was spread throughout the world.[24] The sources for this information are believed to have come from senior police and MPs.[25] These actions clearly need no elaboration as to why this would undermine confidence within the police and CJS. Not only were they lies, it was unprofessional for such information to be leaked and it had already been held in the Taylor Report that alcohol was not a major factor, nor was the victims' behaviour.

However, according to the media reports and the courts, the police were doing a relatively good job and the fans were to blame. It is worth noting that at this point, the extent of the polices & CJS’s conduct and is largely unknown to the majority of the general public. Most of the general public only have knowledge of the disaster via the media, which portrayed the police as the victims.[26]

As will be discussed, public confidence in the police and the CJS was unaffected by Hillsborough and the inquests up to this point. However, that argument changes when the public interacts with the police.

In 2005, Roberts and Hough examined long-term trends from the British Crime Survey (BCS). Roberts and Hough found that ‘aggregate confidence in the police has been in decline since the early 1980’s’.[27] However, as we can see from comments given by Tom Buckle from the Home Office Research and Statistics Department, the BCS survey in 1992 showed a ‘stabilisation’ in these levels.[28] It is worth noting that the BCS survey immediately before the 1992 survey was in 1988, a year before Hillsborough. This shows that the aggregate confidence in the police was in decline up until 1988, and stabilised somewhere between that and 1992, suggesting that the Hillsborough disaster had no negative impact upon the general public’s level of trust in the police. 

However, not all of the survey participants had contact with the police during the year of the survey.[29] Furthermore, over a quarter of people who actually had contact with the police were ‘dissatisfied with the [police] response’,[30] and three out of ten people stopped by police were concerned by the ‘manner in which officers were perceived to behave.’[31]

The above statistics suggest that public confidence in the police and the CJS remained stagnant for a number of reasons. Mainly because most of the public were not aware of the police and CJS’s conduct up until this point and that many of the survey participants had not had encounters with the police.

 The subsequent ‘mini-inquests’ and Stuart-Smith Scrutiny added little to the plight of the victims' families. Although these inquests will not be discussed in great detail due to wording constraints, the Stuart-Smith Scrutiny was described by Scraton as a ‘debacle’.[32] Stuart-Smith noted the editing of the police’s statements after the disaster, however, defended the action as there were ‘only a few examples’ of editing.[33] The HIP identified at least 116 instances of editing statements,[34] this is clearly not ‘a few examples’ and is a further illustration of the courts trying to sweep this under the carpet. The ultimate conclusion from Stuart-Smith being that a further inquiry ‘would [not] uncover significant new evidence or provide any relief for the distress of those who have been bereaved.’[35] The decision of Stuart-Smith was criticised by Lord Falconer, who described it as a ‘cover-up’.[36] It was not until 2009 when the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) was set up, that the conduct of the police and the CJS was revealed in greater detail.

The HIP’s remit was to ‘oversee full public disclosure of relevant government and local information.’[37] The HIP concluded that the victims ‘were not the cause of the disaster.’[38] The Panel discussed the points mentioned above, the police alteration of the witness statements and the police emphasis on the alcohol intake. The panel found that the police used these tactics in order to ‘impugn their [the victims] reputation’ and these tactics were ‘fundamentally flawed’[39] Additionally, the report concluded that the police were passing on ‘inaccurate and untrue’ information to the media through MP’s.[40]

The truth was out. It was at this point the level of confidence within the police and the CJS plummeted. Subsequent polls illustrate the impact the conduct of the police and the CJS has had on public confidence.

A ComRes survey conducted by the BBC found that 78% of adults living in the South Yorkshire area (where the disaster occurred) felt that the SYP’s reputation had been damaged since the findings of the HIP report.[41] Additionally, 37% of respondents said that they had ‘lost trust’ in the force.[42] Nationally, however, confidence in the police appears to be increasing. In 2017/18, ‘78% of people in England and Wales said they had confidence in their local police – up from 76% in 2013/14.’[43]

The CJS first started conducting surveys assessing confidence in the ‘effectiveness of the CJS’ in 2007.[44] In the year ending December 2008, 37% of participants were confident that the CJS was effective as a whole. [45] Compared to 2019, where the figure increased to 52%.

 This essay has discussed the Hillsborough disaster and subsequent inquests and has sought to argue that those events seriously undermined public confidence in the police and the CJS. The police cover-up has been explored at length and the consequences have been highlighted. This essay has argued there was collusion between Popper and the police investigating the disaster and this is what was ultimately put before the court as untruthful, unsubstantiated evidence.

 Although the Taylor Report defended the victims to some extent, it lacked teeth and was merely a façade in the hope of dismissing the victims' families. This essay has gone on to discuss the publics' perception of the disaster and its inquests, highlighting that the police effectively deflected the blame from themselves, via the courts and the media, retaining what little trust they had in the immediate aftermath. It was not until the HIP report that the truth came out. Although the figures show an increase in confidence for both the police and the CJS, it has been shown that those affected by it are predominantly distrusting of the police.

Bibliography

Books

  • Gilligan G and Pratt J, Crime, Truth and Justice (Routledge 2013)
  • Jones J, ‘The patronising disposition of unaccountable power’: A report to ensure the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated (OGL 2017)
  • Nicholson M, The Hillsborough Disaster: In Their Own Words (Amberley Publishing 2016)
  • Roberts J and Hough M, ‘Understanding public attitudes to criminal justice’ (OUP 2005)
  • Scraton P, Hillsborough: The Truth (Mainstream Publishing 2009)
  • Scraton P and Jemphrey et al., No Last Rights: The Denial of Justice and the Promotion of Myth in the Aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster (Liverpool City Council, 1995)
  • Taylor R.P, Ward A and Newburn T, The day of the Hillsborough Disaster: A Narrative Account (Liverpool University Press 1995)

Cases

  • Crompton v PCC South Yorkshire [2017] EWHC 1349 (Admin)
  • R v Duckenfield and Murray [2000] T19991569 (unreported)

Command Papers

  • Home office, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Interim Report (cmd 765, 1989)
  • Home office, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Final Report (cmd 962, 1989)

Hansard

  • HC Deb 8 May 1998, Vol 331, Column 949
  • HC Deb 15 December 2009, Vol 502, Col, 111

Journal Articles

  • Akhtar Z, ‘Hillsborough Verdicts and Criminal Negligence in Crowd Control and its Aftermath’ (2017) 181 JPN 453
  • Bray R.S and Martin G, ‘Exploring fatal facts: current issues in coronial law, policy and practice’ (2016) International Journal of Law in Context, 12 (2) pages 115-140

Newspaper Articles

  • Mackenzie K, ‘The Truth’ The Sun (London, 19 April 1989) Frontpage

Personal Communications

  • Letter from Stefan Popper to L & D M Jones (19 February 1991)

Websites

  • Barlow E, ‘Two doctors who criticised Hillsborough ambulance response speak of “vindication” after inquests’ (Liverpool Echo, 27 April 2016)
  • BBC, ‘Hillsborough Disaster – BBC Documentary HD (2016)’ (18 August 2017) comments by Stephanie Jones
  • Buckle T, ‘Research Findings No. 28’ (Home Office Research and Statistics Department, December 1995)
  • Cameron D, ‘Hillsborough report: Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement in full’ (The Telegraph, 12 September 2012)
  • ComRes, ‘Views of the South Yorkshire Police Force following the independent report into the Hillsborough Disaster’ (BBC, October 2012)
  • Conn D, ‘Hillsborough disaster: deadly mistakes and lies that lasted decades’ (The Guardian, 26 April 2016)
  • Crime Survey for England and Wales, ‘Crime and Justice’ (Office for National Statistics, 2019)
  • Criminal Justice Alliance, ‘Criminal Justice Dictionary: Criminal Justice System’ (Criminal Justice Alliance, dateless)
  • Critchley P, ‘Hillsborough inquest 2015 and coroner’s summing up 2016’ (Academia, 2019)
  • Gibson O and Carter H, ‘Hillsborough: 20 years on, Liverpool has still not forgiven the newspaper it calls ‘The Scum’’ (The Guardian, 18 April 2009)
  • Hillsborough Independent Panel, ‘Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’ (Gov.uk, 12 September 2012)
  • Pierce G, ‘Archive: 12 August 1985: How they rewrote the law at Orgreave’ (The Guardian, 17 June 2014
  • Popper S, ‘List of witnesses’ (Internet Archives, 11 May 2018)
  • Rosenberg J, ‘Hillsborough inquiry by Blair government criticised’ (BBC News, 25 October 2011)
  • Smith D, ‘Public confidence in the Criminal Justice System: findings from the British Crime Survey 2002/03 to 2007/08 (Ministry of Justice, July 2010)
  • The Guardian, ‘Documents published by Hillsborough panel relating to the Sun story’ (The Guardian, 12 September 2012)

[1] David Conn, ‘Hillsborough disaster: deadly mistakes and lies that lasted decades’ (The Guardian, 26 April 2016) accessed 1 February 2020

[2] Criminal Justice Alliance, ‘Criminal Justice Dictionary: Criminal Justice System’ (Criminal Justice Alliance, dateless) accessed 10 February 2020

[3] Peter Critchley, ‘Hillsborough inquest 2015 and coroner’s summing up 2016’ (Academia, 2019) accessed 1 February 2020 page 1128

[4] Peter Critchley, ‘Hillsborough inquest 2015 and coroner’s summing up 2016’ (Academia, 2019) accessed 1 February 2020 page 989

[5] Hillsborough Independent Panel, ‘Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’ (Gov.uk, 12 September 2012) accessed 1 February 2020 page 262

[6] BBC, ‘Hillsborough Disaster – BBC Documentary HD (2016)’ (18 August 2017) comments by Phil Scraton accessed 1 February 2020

[7] Hillsborough Independent Panel, ‘Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’ (Gov.uk, 12 September 2012) accessed 1 February 2020 page 183

[8] BBC, ‘Hillsborough Disaster – BBC Documentary HD (2016)’ (18 August 2017) comments by Stephanie Jones accessed 1 February 2020

[9] Hillsborough Independent Panel, ‘Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’ (Gov.uk, 12 September 2012) accessed 1 February 2020 page 55

[10] Mike Nicholson, The Hillsborough Disaster: In Their Own Words (Amberley Publishing 2016)

[11] Home office, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Interim Report (cmd 765, 1989) page 49

[12] Home office, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Interim Report (cmd 765, 1989) page 49

[13] Home office, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Interim Report (cmd 765, 1989) page 49

[14] Gareth Peirce, ‘Archive: 12 August 1985: How they rewrote the law at Orgreave’ (The Guardian, 17 June 2014 accessed 1 February 2020

[15] Home office, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Interim Report (cmd 765, 1989) page 34

[16] Home office, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Interim Report (cmd 765, 1989) page 50

[17] Home office, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Final Report (cmd 962, 1989) pages i-viii

[18] George Gilligan and John Pratt, Crime, Truth and Justice (Routledge, 2013) page 55

[19] Hillsborough Independent Panel, ‘Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’ (Gov.uk, 12 September 2012) accessed 1 February 2020 page 28

[20] Letter from Stefan Popper to L & D M Jones (19 February 1991) accessed 11 February 2020

[21] Stefan Popper, ‘List of witnesses’ (Internet Archives, 11 May 2018) accessed 2 February 2020 page 4

[22] James Jones, The patronising disposition of unaccountable power’: A report to ensure the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated (OGL 2017) page 45

[23] Elanor Barlow, ‘Two doctors who criticised Hillsborough ambulance response speak of “vindication” after inquests’ (Liverpool Echo, 27 April 2016) accessed 2 February 2020

[24] Kelvin Mackenzie, ‘The Truth’ The Sun (London, 19 April 1989) Front page

[25] The Guardian, ‘Documents published by Hillsborough panel relating to the Sun story’ (The Guardian, 12 September 2012) accessed 3 February 2020; Owen Gibson and Helen Carter, ‘Hillsborough: 20 years on, Liverpool has still not forgiven the newspaper it calls ‘The Scum’’ (The Guardian, 18 April 2009) accessed 3 February 2020; David Cameron, ‘Hillsborough report: Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement in full’ (The Telegraph, 12 September 2012) accessed 3 February 2020  

[26] Kelvin Mackenzie, ‘The Truth’ The Sun (London, 19 April 1989) Front page

[27] Julian Roberts and Mike Hough, Understanding public attitudes to criminal justice’ (OUP, 2005)

[28] Tom Buckle, ‘Research Findings No. 28’ (Home Office Research and Statistics Department, December 1995) accessed 4 February 2020

[29] Tom Buckle, ‘Research Findings No. 28’ (Home Office Research and Statistics Department, December 1995) accessed 4 February 2020

[30] Tom Buckle, ‘Research Findings No. 28’ (Home Office Research and Statistics Department, December 1995) accessed 4 February 2020

[31] Tom Buckle, ‘Research Findings No. 28’ (Home Office Research and Statistics Department, December 1995) accessed 4 February 2020

[32] Phil Scraton, Hillsborough: The Truth (Mainstream Publishing 2009)

[33] Hillsborough Independent Panel, ‘Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’ (Gov.uk, 12 September 2012) accessed 1 February 2020 page 24

[34] Hillsborough Independent Panel, ‘Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’ (Gov.uk, 12 September 2012) accessed 1 February 2020 page 339

[35] HC Deb 8 May 1998, Vol 331, Column 949

[36] Joshua Rosenberg, ‘Hillsborough inquiry by Blair government criticised’ (BBC News, 25 October 2011) accessed 5 February 2020

[37] HC Deb 15 December 2009, Vol 502, Col, 111

[38] Hillsborough Independent Panel, ‘Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’ (Gov.uk, 12 September 2012) accessed 1 February 2020 page 1

[39] Hillsborough Independent Panel, ‘Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’ (Gov.uk, 12 September 2012) accessed 1 February 2020 page 176; Hillsborough Independent Panel, ‘Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’ (Gov.uk, 12 September 2012) accessed 1 February 2020 page 14

[40] Hillsborough Independent Panel, ‘Hillsborough: The Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’ (Gov.uk, 12 September 2012) accessed 1 February 2020 page 350-352

[41] ComRes, ‘Views of the South Yorkshire Police Force following the independent report into the Hillsborough Disaster’ (BBC, October 2012) accessed 6 February 2020

[42] ComRes, ‘Views of the South Yorkshire Police Force following the independent report into the Hillsborough Disaster’ (BBC, October 2012) accessed 6 February 2020

[43] Crime Survey for England and Wales, ‘Crime and Justice’ (Office for National Statistics, 2019) accessed 7 February 2020

[44] Dominic Smith, ‘Public confidence in the Criminal Justice System: findings from the British Crime Survey 2002/03 to 2007/08 (Ministry of Justice, July 2010) accessed 6 February 2020 page 34

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[45] Dominic Smith, ‘Public confidence in the Criminal Justice System: findings from the British Crime Survey 2002/03 to 2007/08 (Ministry of Justice, July 2010) accessed 6 February 2020 page 36

 

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