Friday, May 13, 2016

Crime And Punishment

For the last few weeks the media has given extensive coverage to the Hillsborough disaster. The release of the report saw emotionally charged interviews with the bereaved that were understandable, especially given the drama-soaked circumstances. It transpired, as so often happens, that some of those crying loudly for 'justice' had revenge in mind, and that led me to think about the justice that I help to administer. Seriousness and culpability come near the top of our list of things to consider, so let's take a cool-headed look at Hillsborough.
The police commander made an error of judgment in opening the gates to the terraces, a relatively low-level error but one that had devastating consequences. The response of he police and other services was inadequate, and many deaths resulted.
So what would be justice in this case, given the finality of all those corpses?

It appears that the police commander might be liable in law for negligence (although I am not at all qualified to comment on the legal aspects) but what good would it do to punish him?

The nearest parallel that I can think of is in the field of aviation safety. Pilots are able to report incidents fully and truthfully, without fear of being punished. This is by far the best way to build a body of experience to avoid future disasters.

However, and it is a massive however, there are suggestions that there  was a cover-up at all levels, including, incredibly, the methodical editing of police statements. That is what should attract condign punishment, rather than one man's catastrophic failure of judgement.


  1. You, more than anyone, understand the difference between a simple "error of judgement" and criminal negligence. Duckenfield was guilty of the latter 27 years ago and hopefully the CPS will now bring the full weight of the law to bear on him. The passage of time must not reduce the severity of the sentence, otherwise why remove the statute of limitations from the most serious crimes?
    But what is worse is that Hillsborough wasn't just a cover-up by the establishment, but a blatant attempt to deflect blame on to the victims. That is the worst part of this.

  2. Some elements of the press also deserve legal scrutiny, now that there is a firm factual basis with which to compare what appears to be their egregious behaviour.

  3. I don't agree with you about Duckenfield facing the full force of the law. He was inexperienced, in an extraordinary difficult situation and made an error of judgement. Plenty of mitigation there to reduce his culpability.

    However, he went on to lie about his actions, and that is an entirely different matter. On the other hand he is, as far as I know, the only official who has admitted their failing, and for that he deserves credit.

    Bystanders analogy with pilots is apt, as it is with doctors etc.

  4. Sean, London:

    From the reports I saw this as a simple but catastrophic error, with no element of culpable negligence. I would certainly hate to try prosecuting it. The cover-up though,is clear misfeasance, so I would expect successful prosecutions.

  5. The die is now cast unfortunately. All police officers and staff throughout the country will be tainted, and obvious discrepancies overlooked. Please no-one mention the er..... curiously worded questions put to the jury and the fact that only 7 people of that jury agreed with them. Heysel Stadium is also not part of the picture either.

    For those that are curious about how 'justice' works, please remember that the emergency services saved lives that day too, but seemingly they cannot be proud of that.

  6. "It appears that the police commander might be liable in law for negligence (although I am not at all qualified to comment on the legal aspects) but what good would it do to punish him?"

    The answer is probably no good at all, but try getting any of the relatives of any of the victims to agree with that.

  7. Duckenfield did not got to work that day intending to kill 96 people. In the 1980's football was not pleasant. There was a large hooligan element and stadia were, in the main, old, unfit for purpose and dangerous. My memories of policing football at that time was that it was unpleasant and confrontational on all sides. Before Hillsborough we had seen the Bradford City fire. On the same day as the Bradford fire there was a riot at Birmingham City that resulted in a death. The Heysel disaster resulted in English clubs being banned from Europe. One of my memories is that fans from certain clubs had a reputation for turning up late and deliberately creating crushes at the gates so that they could gain admittance. This was going on after Hillsborough. The Taylor report brought in all seated stadiums, this was a vast improvement in my opinion.
    I would not be seduced by the voices calling for'safe standing'. I have a slightly prejudiced view of football supporters based on 32 years experience. No other sport requires the deployment of vast numbers of police to ensure that rival fans do not fight each other. No other sport blames the police when fighting breaks out because 'there were no police to stop us fighting'. You only need to look at the reports from all over Europe to realise that football has a problem with violent supporters, to say that it is all about 'passion' is to hide the truth. I am sorry, but despite all the Sky money there is still a very unpleasant side to football.

    1. Here, here.

      The fans were not entirely blameless. There had been some drinking and there had been some disorder. Both were, and remain, features of the sport. That behaviour was expected and was present at Hillsborough. It was the norm. Let us not pretend the fans had no culpability.

      It seemed to me that the police officers present were poorly led but did their best to save lives when eventually it became apparent what was really happening. Some of the officers were very damaged by what they saw that day and that should not be overlooked. There was a serious leadership deficit but I don't see there being much point in punishing the man in charge who was inexperienced in these matters. At least he admitted his failings (eventually).

      I do see every reason to punish those who lied, changed statements and ran a smear campaign. The damage they did (and that damage is not limited to 27 years ago) is huge, both to the families of the victims as well as to public confidence in the police. I most sincerely hope that those responsible for the lies, and those who have repeated those same lies at the inquest, will be punished to the full extent of the law. That is not revenge, it is justice and is necessary for the families and for sending out the message that the passage of time will not provide a cloak for the guilty to hide behind.

    2. A jury has spent two gruelling years considering ALL of the evidence in great detail (over a third of a million pages) and came to the conclusion that the fans did not contribute to the disaster. It is sad but not surprising that comments on a number of newspaper websites suggest that some people still value "what they reckon" more highly than the conclusions of that jury or the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Society owes that jury a debt of gratitude and their conclusions deserve respect.

      We might wonder why the police evidence of near fatal crushes at the Leppings Lane end in previous years (especially 1981) presented to SWFC had been ignored by the club. A jury might consider this negligence.

      We might wonder why it was not an issue of concern that the stand had no valid safety certificate after contributary architectural changes had been made to the pens that should have led to a reduction in the capacity of the stand. A jury might consider this negligence.

      We might wonder why Duckenfield was appointed and why he was given no effective support by his superiors. The usual filtering of fans outside the ground did not occur and contributed to the crush outside that caused gate C to be opened. Duckenfield should have been briefed about this. The usual "Freeman" tactic (named after the police officer who cameup with it) of closing the entrance to the central pens when they were at capacity did not occur. Duckenfield's superiors should have seen that he was at the very least been briefed about this by his predecessor if not mentored by him on the day. A jury might consider this negligence,

      I have much sympathy for the coppers on the ground who did their best but were let down by their superior officers before the day had even started.

    3. Anon 21:59:

      "came to the conclusion that the fans did not contribute to the disaster."

      That is completely and demonstrably untrue.

      Those people were crushed to death. From where did the physical force to do that come from? Hundreds / thousands of fans pushing as hard as they could.

      That is a fact.

  8. I have been one of your readers since the earliest days of the blog, and I have to say I would never have thought these comments would have come from you. The families of the 96 do not seek revenge - it would in any case be meaningless in the face of their loss - they seek Justice. They want the force that tried to fit up all the Liverpool fans as drunken yobs to be held accountable for that action - and good luck to them I say...

    Duckinfield lied about his actions on the day, and whilst it's true to say he was inexperienced, he didn't exactly try to mitigate this by actually walking the ground in advance of the ground. He also by his own admission froze. His actions on the day led directly to the deaths, and he will have to live with that. I don't want, nor to I believe the relatives want, Duckinfield to serve out the rest of his days at Her Majesty's Pleasure - but he cannot escape justice entirely...

    To be honest, I almost felt sorry for Duckinfield when he offered his apology. I do believe it was sincere, if 27 years late, and it's clear to anyone with feelings that the events of the day pain him still.

    The cover up however was a criminal conspiracy, and should be treated as such. Families have been put through 27 years of hell, and "good" officers will face 27 years of reputational damage over this. Justice has to be forthcoming...

    It seems this would be an idea time for South Yorkshire Police to have a period of reflection about perhaps making some form of apology for their conduct at the "Battle of Orgreave" whilst they are about it.

  9. Absolutely agree with the two anonymous contributors at 16:25 and 21:59. This terrible event would not have happened if an experienced officer had not been replaced by Dukinfield and had Duckinfield done some preliminary work to see the potential problems he might face. This was not a simple error and though Duckinfield's actions were not the only cause of the tragedy his performance fell well below that which you might expect from a senior police officer and as such he needs to take his share of responsibility. This was not a simple error.

    Although many police officers did their best on the day and some still bear the scars from what they saw and did, my abiding memories of TV on the day are of officers at the fence trying to prevent spectators escaping on to the field and another line of officers in a single line across the field doing nothing to help.

    As for those still trying to deflect blame onto the supporters, shame on you.

  10. Football supporters at that time behaved in various unpleasant ways. the police knew that and should have had procedures in place to deal with it at Hillsborough. They didn't, that was negligent.

    After the disaster happened a huge number of police officers stood on the pitch and did nothing to help the injured. That is misconduct.

    a number of officers did their utmost, above and beyond, perhaps what was expected. That was wonderful.

    After the event people who should have known better lied through their teeth about what happened. Those lies continued in front of the jury. That is despicable.

    Duckenfield was at fault. So were many others. they should all bear responsibility.

  11. Orgreave must be viewed against the picture of policing and industrial disputes that prevailed at that time. It came some 12 years after the 'Battle of Saltley' when NUM pickets forced the closure of the Saltley coke works with the local police unable to stop them. There was a determination at the time by conservative politicians and the senior ranks of the police that this would not happen again. The NUM tried to close down Orgreave and the police, IMO, were duty bound to stop them. The tactics etc of thirty years ago should not be judged by the standards of today. The only alternative to the use of the police would have been the use of the military. I have no doubt that extreme political pressure was then applied to the SYP hierarchy of the time to ensure that Orgreave remained open. Public order policing is not nice, although there were excesses on the police side the pickets were not entirely blameless either. I fear Orgreave will just become another stick to beat the police with. We do have an obsession with investigating long ago things in this country, and a good way it is of diverting attentions from present government failings.

    1. Orgreave is irrelevant to Hillsborough. There is a fundamental right to go in peace and unmolested about your lawful occasions and at Orgreave as at Saltley the NUM - a private pressure group - was trying to undermine it.

      The ECHR also includes the right to elect your government. Just after the electiojn of '83 Scargill, one of the leaders of that private pressure group, said that he did not accept that because of the election the members of the group were stuck with a Conservative government for four years. The leadership of the group did not even follow their own semi-Stalinist rules when they tried to force the Nottinghamshire miners, who had voted not to strike, to quit their work.

      Breaking that arrogant union was not pleasant work but it was essential and it was Mrs Thatcher's greatest legacy to us all.

    2. Sadly no blame has been attached at all to the fans who were late, and who caused the crush. I'm sorry but this type of behaviour did not happen at Rugby, Golf, Wimbledon or any other sporting or other kind of mass spectator event bar than football. It was a very different place then! I do not however attach any blame to those who were tragically killed in this incident.

  12. The police are politically impartial. Or they should be. The fact that the Tory administration at the time wanted to stop the NUM's behaviour does not mean the police were entitled to ignore the law, which they did throughout the miner's strike.

  13. Your comment about pilots is very apt; as a pilot from a major airline said to me "In an emergency you might have ten seconds to make a decision as to what to do if something goes wrong. The subsequent enquiry has all the experts pooling their knowledge, plus the benefit of hindsight, to decide after a couple of years deliberation as to what you should have done".
    He was speaking to me about a crash enquiry which had blamed a pilot for doing the wrong thing even though he managed to crash-land the aircraft without any fatalities.


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